Site and soil preparation for hedges FAQs

Is there such a thing as an ideal site for a hedge?

As with any other type of plant, hedging plants have preferences for aspect, soil, and so on, but in practice the position of a hedge is dictated by necessity. It is more a case of fitting the material to the site, and particularly of choosing the species or variety which is most appropriate to the needs and purposes of the hedge first, and then making sure that it will grow in the soil and aspect.

What is the right time of year to plant a hedge?

As with any woody plant, the dormant season is the best time for planting. Plants which are deciduous (whose leaves fall in autumn) can be planted at any time when the weather is suitable between mid-October and March, but preferably before Christmas. Evergreens should be planted in early to mid-autumn or early to mid-spring.

The above remarks apply to bare-rooted plants. If the plants are container-grown, planting can be at any time, though be prepared for frequent watering of summer plantings.

We ordered 50 plants for a beech hedge last July and have been advised by the nursery that they will arrive shortly. We are anxious that they should all ‘take’ and know in general how to plant, but can you give us any special tips?

If the hedge site is not fully prepared when the plants arrive, unwrap them and plant them shallowly for the time being in a sheltered place, so that the roots do not become dry. When you do plant, mark the position of the hedge first with a taut line pegged at intervals to keep it from moving, otherwise the hedge will be a wavy one. Make a measuring stick from a length of batten, to show the distance between plants.

Dig out a trench to a spade’s depth and about 375 mm (15 in) wide, or whatever is sufficient to allow the roots to be spread out. Start at one end, put in the first plant to the same depth as it was in the nursery (indicated by the soil mark on the stem), fill in some but not all of the soil over the roots and firm it in with the foot. Use your measuring stick to position the next plant, and continue until the hedge is complete. Then fill in the remainder of the soil, making sure that the line of the hedge is straight as you go. Finally, firm the soil as before. Stakes will not be necessary. If you are planting in dry soil, give the plants a good watering-in at once.

Is any special treatment required for the soil before planting a hedge, other than that given to any shrubby plant?

Soil preparation needs to be thorough as the hedge is likely to be there for many years, so double digging is always advisable . The trench should be about 1.2 m (4 ft) wide to give the hedge a good root-run. Dig it out four or five weeks before the intended planting date, and mix in well-rotted organic matter. Add a general compound fertiliser a week before planting if the soil is light and quick-draining.

Before starting, mark out the required position of the hedge with a tightly stretched line that runs down the middle of what will be the trench; there should therefore be 600 mm (2 ft) width on either side of the line. Be careful to dig to an even depth, otherwise you will get uneven growth of the hedge.

Is it necessary to trim or cut back hedge plants immediately after planting?

Some, but not all, should be cut back, unless they were planted in late winter or spring, when the trimming described below should be delayed until the following winter. The privets, tamarisk, thorn, blackthorn, and myrobalan plum should have their height reduced to about 100-125 mm (4-5 in). Plants such as beech, berberis, box, cotoneaster, escallonia, Euonymus japonicus, gorse, hazel, hornbeam (Carpinus) laurustinus (Viburnum tinus), Lonicera nitida, firethorn (Pyracantha), and rosemary (Rosemarinus) should have their height reduced by a third and the side growths trimmed to make them tidy. Conifers, holly, laurel—including Portugal laurel (Prunus lusitanica) and bay (Laurus)—and pittosporum should not have their height reduced, although straggling sideshoots can be trimmed.

In the second winter, repeat this trimming on all but the first group mentioned above (privet, etc); they will need only to have the previous summer’s new growth cut back by half. These methods of training will ensure that the hedge is thick and well-clothed right from the base, and apply to formal hedges.

All informal hedges, except evergreens and brooms, should be cut back to leave 30 mm (12 in) length; the exceptions are left uncut.

I planted a cypress hedge in late April, and most of it went brown and appeared to die in the summer. Why is this?

Conifers, and indeed any species of evergreen, continue to transpire (give off water vapour) after planting or transplanting, but the roots will not absorb water from the soil for some time. If dry weather follows planting, the loss of moisture from the plant is much quicker, and results in discoloration and, often, leaf-fall, followed by death.

After planting, therefore, the water supply in the soil must be maintained—by artificial watering if need be. Mulches help to retain the moisture, and overhead spraying to soak the foliage every evening further helps to slow down transpiration.

Some nurseries send out their evergreens coated with a special substance which prevents loss of moisture; the coating dissolves completely in due course. Other important post-planting treatments include firming back into the soil any plants which have been forced up by frost; and supplying shields against strong or cold winds.

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