Replanting hedgerows using permaculture design

Tim Green
Monday, 20th February 2012

When your hedges are leaking sheep, something needs to be done. Hedgelaying is an ancient and time-honoured skill, but what if hedgerow plants could be selected by applying permaculture thinking and techniques? Tim Green tried it out...

Over the last couple of years we have started the long process of regenerating our farm's hedgerows. A combination of semi-neglect and overuse of the flail trimmer have left many of them somewhat 'permeable' to livestock, and it is in the nature of sheep to rapidly turn the smallest hole into a major thoroughfare.

My newly acquired skill of traditional hedgelaying (learned at the University of YouTube, along with legspin bowling) is remarkably effective at plugging most the gaps but some are extensive enough to require some replanting as well. Inspired by a self-sown and very productive apple tree in one hedge we thought this offered a good opportunity to add many other fruit varieties to the traditional hedgerow hips, haws and sloes.

Planting a hedgerow

The first hedge we tackled was predominantly 30-year-old unruly, and entirely sheep porous, hazel. After thinning and laying, the hedge is now stock proof; the hazel is rejuvenated and along its length are plums, apples, pears, cherries, mulberries, quinces and a couple of sweet chestnuts. There's not much to see now, but hopefully in a year or two the fruits of our labour will start to emerge.

In early 2010, fortune shoved us in the direction of an even fruitier hedge experiment. With the first hint of spring already in the air, we received a thoroughly generous donation of bare root fruit trees from Martin Crawford at the Agroforestry Research Trust. We had no hedge gaps ready for planting and, with buds already starting to open, the trees were in dire need of somewhere to live.

If you are familiar with his work, you'll understand that the first thing that springs to mind when Martin Crawford gives you fruit trees is "let's plant a forest garden!". Well, that's certainly what we thought; immediately followed by the realisation that the old boys who run the farm would never agree to hand over even a fraction of an acre of pasture for something "weird like that".

Hedgerow plants

With that in mind we thought of our other favourite Martin in the world of agroforestry, Prof Martin Wolfe of Wakelyns Agroforestry. He has taken the alley cropping approach on his experimental farm in Suffolk and we thought that a sort of cross between his narrow north/south oriented 'hedges' and a forest garden would be a far easier sell at our place. As a hybrid between a 'Crawfordian' food forest and a 'Wolfian' woodland strip we had no choice but to call our new hedge, Martin.

A tip from Prof Wolfe (a sworn enemy of monoculture!) was to interplant native trees amongst fruit cultivars to increase biological diversity and reduce the risk of disease spread. To this end we mixed up hollies, hawthorns, blackthorns, ashes, willows, alders (for nitrogen fixing) and hazels with the fruit trees as they went in. From Martin Crawford we had learned about the all important design element in the positioning of your canopy species. As we only had a north/south line to work with, we did our best to position small trees (based on rootstock averages) to the south and move steadily to taller ones at the north end to try to minimize shading.

Hedgerow fruits

The fruit trees ended up being a mixture of plums, apples, quince, gage, medlar, pear, American hawthorn, mulberry and a load of apple rose bushes. With the trees in place, we embarked on a mulch-a-thon of cardboard and woodchip in the vague hope that the grasses could be kept at bay long enough to get some useful and edible ground cover plants established.

Spring planting of young fruit trees
It's now a full growing season since I planted out the groundcover/understory plants and some have been more successful than others. To be fair, the failures were mostly down to my not planting/sowing thickly enough. This year I will add some soft fruit bushes and there will definitely be lots more sweet cicely, swiss chard, rhubarb, perennial kale, parsley, pink purslane, wild strawberry, oregano and globe artichokes – all successful, all tasty.

The most encouraging thing from our hedge called Martin is how quickly he has started to yield fruit and how fast the trees are growing. That little selfish niggle that planting trees is only for benefit of the next generation has proved to be wonderfully unfounded. 

Further Reading

Hedging – a key reference point for practical ways of creating and maintaining hedgerows, contains tested advice and good practice from the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. £14.95

Fruits of the Hedgerow - and unusual garden plants - a useful cookbook to celebrate the sometimes forgotten fruits and nuts to be found in hedgerows and old gardens for those adventurous enough to look. £6.99


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