Hedges - Any Questions?

Hedges are an excellent boundary marker, adding privacy and as a windbreak, they can last far longer than a fence and are arguably more attractive, they aren't without their potential problems however.


Q.  We have a very long privet hedge that skirts all three sides to our garden.  It is about 3ft - 4 ft high but has got very wide and is encroaching on our beds too much.  How and when do we prune it.  We will need to prune hard, any tips on how we tackle it please.

A.  Privet can take very hard pruning, so no real worries about damaging it. Leave it until it's showing signs of spring growth first though. I'd do it a side at a time, prune the side that is causing the greatest encroachment first, and then when that has greened up again, prune the other side. You can do both at the same time, but the plants then have to draw entirely on their reserves rather than being "powered" by the leafy side, the hedge also looks very threadbare until new leaves have grown.


Q.  Are there any climbing plants which will grow through a privet hedge and will withstand the usual clipping? Possibly a vigorous clematis or honeysuckle? I can't cut down my shared privet hedges but I desperately want to make them even the tiniest bit more attractive, especially as they have been cut back very hard this year as they'd been neglected in the past & look like twigs at the moment.

A.  Some climbers such as those that you mention will withstand the regular cutting that your privet hedge will get if they grow through it, though I wouldn't do it myself. The plant will almost certainly never flower, or at least not as well as it would do otherwise. Whenever you cut the hedge/climber you'll be removing resources that could be put into flowering and possibly at some times of the year, the flower buds themselves. Privet needs regular trimming that would adversely affect your climbers.

Climbers growing through hedges only work in a very informal setting with maybe a single annual cut, situations where privet aren't really planted. The good news on the other hand is that privet recovers very well and very quickly from a severe cutting into bare wood. Your hedge should be all bright and green again in much less than the time it would take for a climber no matter how vigorous to establish.


Q. I am planning to dig up a very large hedge in my mum's garden and would really appreciate some advice on the best way to tackle it. It is a well established hedge which will be replaced by a fence, so I need to make sure I do the job properly. What is the easiest way to do this, without causing myself an injury? Many thanks for your help.

A. There is no magical easy way, just hard work and sweat - swearing at appropriate times helps too. You may need to ensure you remove the stumps to prevent re-growth, which can be manually with more digging and grunting or chemically once the stumps have been leveled almost to the ground, this takes time though. Make sure you buy yourself a mattock rather than just trying to use a spade and fork. The easiest way? - pay someone else to do it.


Q. We want to plant a hedge on our eastern boundary, 100ft long under oak trees both for privacy and to absorb road noise. We prefer a fast growing tree. The hedge would be bounded by a stone wall with an expanse of land on the other side so would get some s.w. wind. Please advise on a shade loving hedge - we have facilities to water. Your advice would be appreciated as we have put off this project for some time now as we have been undecided what to plant.

A. A "shade loving hedge" doesn't really exist, shade tolerant is about as good as it gets. You could use privet or laurel, (laurel by preference) these would be reasonably quick growing, but the only things that really grow fast in shade are things that are trying to leave the shade and reach the sun. Box would be good but very slow growing.


Q.  I am wondering if you would be able to give me information on 'Layering' a hedge. I remember as a child having layered hedges around us. We lived in the New Forest. Now having a small property in Victoria, Australia, I would like to create a layered hedge using Australian natives. I would appreciate any information could give me. This craft is not practiced here, so information is not available. Thank you in anticipation

A.  Sorry I can't help directly here. Unfortunately hedge laying is a dying art, it is also one of the most skilled of old countryside crafts so brief advice wouldn't be of any use.

You could try contacting "TCV" The Conservation Volunteers" or the UK National Trust. I know that TCV in particular used to produce some very detailed publications on all kinds of countryside crafts that may give you the information that you need.


Q.  I planted a hedge of 25 Thuja conifers in late September, 20 inches apart in a well-prepared trench. The trees run in a North-South direction for approx. 40 ft. and there is a 6 ft. fence to the Western side.

The trees appeared to be doing fine until about a week ago, during recent heavy rains in the UK. On 5-10 trees there are a number of brown leaves, especially nearer the ground that are falling off. I can accept that there may be some loss over the winter. However, some leaves and stems higher on the plants in random locations are turning an almost blue-black colour and falling off. Is this normal, or do I need to take action?

A.  It's not always easy to work out what's happening when conifers start dying off. I wouldn't expect the browning off or blackening of stems at all, neither are expected responses for newly planted conifers in such a short time.

I think the strongest possibility is an infestation of Phytophthora fungus. The fungus thrives in damp and waterlogged soils so may be in your soil, but the speed at which your plants have been affected implies that there is a good chance that they arrived with it. It kills the plants from the roots upwards and can give the blue/black colour on the stems that you describe. The roots of affected plants are reddish brown or black rather than white.

To quote from the MAFF website:

    Some trees, such as Lawson's cypress are highly susceptible to Phytophthora root rot. Nevertheless, root rot is almost always the result of over-watering, root damage or prior drought stress, poor soil conditions, flooding, etc. Pythium and Phytophthora can almost always be found in dead, rotted roots, so may not be the primary cause. Except for highly susceptible species, re-planting with healthy trees should not be a problem if the soil and environment are improved and good horticultural practices are followed

Other possibilities - you'll need to investigate a bit further:

  • Conifers have a delayed reaction to stress and damage that is more immediate in broad-leaved plants. They may have been damaged or dried out before you got them and then showed signs later. A couple of years ago I bought 6 "bargain" conifers at an auction that looked very healthy, took them home and watched them turn brown and die over the next two weeks. They had been totally dried out in their containers and then watered just before I bought them.
  • Dog urine. Quite high on the list of possibilities from the symptoms. Is it possible that a dog/s are spraying on the hedge? The affected areas have a greasy appearance if this is the problem.
  • Are they being water-logged at all? Try digging down near the roots to about 6-12" is the soil boggy?
  • Drying out after planting could be a possibility if unlikely. If they are in a wind-swept place though and weren't watered in initially or during a dry spell it may have caused the damage you describe.

Cure? obviously depends on the cause. If it's Phytophthora there's nothing you can really do. I'd go back to where you bought the plants from, but there's no chemical control available to cure it. Tsuga heterophylla (Western hemlock - not keen on exposed windy sites) and the ubiquitous Lleylandii (tough as old boots and grows like mad) are resistant.


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