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Posts Tagged ‘hedging’

I was thinking today about the way that our culture is largely extractive — we pull apart individual elements out of natural materials, and use those elements for specialized purposes (oil from the ground to power the internal combustion engine, vitamins from food to recombine into other foods, etc.). We are now seeing the limits of some of that extractive behavior, and are beginning to explore how to work within the full complexity of natural systems to achieve our energy, food, and shelter goals. To do so requires a better understanding of the natural systems around us, so we can see how human activity might fit in to them in a more sustainable way.

Our extractive tendencies show up in the garden, too. As Toby mentioned, he and I have been talking about monocultural landscapes, as opposed to the more complex landscapes often found in nature. I was making a point about some of the more beautiful designed landscapes I’d been seeing images of recently: residences with extensive knot gardens, a spot of topiary, and layered hedges. Those places garner oohs and ahs — from me as much as anyone else — but after I’ve seen a few images, I’m done. I realize that the hedges help compose each shot, and once I’ve seen the graphic composition, I’m often left with not much to look at.

The idea of facing down a 5′ high yew hedge with a 3′ high barberry hedge, and facing the barberry hedge with a foot-high Japanese holly hedge is cool; covering up the shrubs’ bare legs gives a full, buttressed look to the geometric lines edging a space.

Nice use of hedging varieties -- use with restraint

Nice use of hedging varieties -- use with restraint

I’m as inclined to do it as anyone else (in moderation, I hope).

Somehow, though, making an entire landscape this way feels like clobbering a property into submission. Once I’ve seen the ‘rooms’ all these hedge walls make, I want to see a party of plants inside those walls. It makes sense to form space that allows free human activity to take place in it, and done well, it’s completely great (see Russell Page’s work). It also — at times, and perhaps in addition to this kind of hedge planting, if not in place of it — makes sense to design plantings that express a more organic understanding of the natural world. Why is it that formal hedges telegraph a sense of sophistication in photographs, when designing communities of plants requires greater effort, knowledge, and skill? Replicating or designing a complex system is a far more sophisticated exercise in my mind than setting out geometric patterns of the same plant, as fun as doing that is.

Perhaps I’m just crabby on this topic because I’ve done a great deal of hedge shearing in my time, and it’s strenuous, back-breaking work, and I’m little inclined to design a place requiring that sort of ongoing maintenance monotony.

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I’m looking out at the corner of a yard that once was filled with Norway maple saplings.  Most of the saplings are now gone — felled by saw, Roundup, and hatchet — and the few that remain lie in a thick horizontal bundle, their stems cut almost all the way through.  This bundle, which should leaf out in a week or two, will then sport a lush, dense cloak of leaves, and will provide cover for birds, squirrels, and chipmunks.  

Sapling hedges like this have been used in Europe for centuries; the National Hedgelaying Society of Britain tells us that Julius Caesar mentioned laid hedges (sapling trunks are partially cut and bent over, or laid, in a row, and then staked and woven together) in 55 BC Flanders.  England’s Enclosure Acts of the 18th century, which legislated the development of private property from what once had been common lands, spurred the use of laid hedges in that country, and the laying of hedges became an art.  A well-laid hedge will keep cattle and sheep enclosed in a field, will provide cover for all sorts of small animals and birds, and will define clear, unmistakable, and impenetrable boundaries to a property.

This Norway maple hedge doesn’t have the intricate weaving of a professionally laid English hedge, but it does harness the plants’ own vigor and arboricultural properties in the same way.  Cutting each trunk channels the tree’s energy; tipping back the tree’s leaders and laying their trunks down horizontally changes the flow of growth-suppressive hormones and growth-supportive sugars so that the now-vertical side shoots can develop.  Maintenance now involves my going out once or twice a season and tipping back the side shoots that want to grow higher than the others, a task that takes all of five minutes for this twenty-foot long hedge.

I laid this hedge to see what the effect would be on this invasive-tree riddled area, and on the invasives themselves.  What I’ve learned is that a laid hedge makes an effective barrier (this one screens the compost heap from view quite nicely), that the trunk-cutting reduces vigor enough to keep the plants thriving but not taking over, and that — so far — I can maintain the trees in a juvenile state, and so prevent further seeding of the species.  

We don’t see much hedging in this country.  Perhaps it has to do with the abundant availability of wood for fence-making when the first settlers arrived from Europe, or the need to use up in stone walls the generous supply of fieldstone that pushes up from New England soil every spring.  A neat hedge usually requires the planting of saplings in a line, and then two to five years of waiting for the saplings to reach hedging size.  Fencing and stone walls are faster means of enclosure. 

It does seem to me, though, that with the march of invasive species, and in this case, invasive tree species, through the landscape, we would do well to come up with ways not just of eradicating those species, but in some instances, of managing them.  In this instance, the Norway maples in the yard were outcompeting everything else.  By removing some, and then enlisting others to make a small hedge, we’re able to redirect the nature of this particular corner of the yard to a more useful end.  Although the Mother Norway Maple just feet away still shades that corner (and still showers it with seeds), I’m hopeful that I’ll soon be able to plant some shade-tolerant species there that can deal with those stresses.

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