Give me shelter: how to grow a native Irish hedge
Now is the time to plant bare-root natural hedging to protect from the wind (and nosy neighbours)
There’s more to hedging than leylandii. Photograph: Getty Images
It can take a while for a new house to become a sanctuary, a protected space sheltered from surrounding housing and the less attractive aspects of the local environment. We want our homes to be somewhere we can escape for a while from the gaze of curious neighbours or the exposure of an open site. Walls and fences are the normal solution for creating shelter and privacy, whether in a new housing estate or an open field, but a natural hedge can be just as effective and with added benefits to local flora and fauna. Growing a hedge may not be as fast as erecting a wall, but with care it’ll outlive the densest concrete barricade and will always be more beautiful.
Native species make for the most durable of hedging as they are best adapted to our climate over millennia and are most sustaining to native birds and insects. Most good nurseries now offer mixes of natural hedging from €1 a plant, which are available in the dormant season from November to March as bare-root saplings and can be slid into the ground by simply cutting a t-shaped slit in the ground.
The hawthorn is the staple of any traditional hedgerow: this myth-laden, ecological-rich plant will thrive anywhere and provide natural shelter, as it has done for the fairy folk for eons. Blending it with species such as field maple, hazel, spindle, buckthorn, wild rose and viburnum make for tough and variated hedging. Planting two-foot high saplings a foot apart will provide a fine hedge within four years. Since many are woodland species, they thrive in creating a thick wall of foliage as they vie for light.
Future Forests (www.futureforests.net) near Bantry in Co Cork offers a wildlife fruiting hedge with crab apple, wild pear and guelder rose for €120 per 100 plants, dropping to €650 for 1,000 plants. It also has a flowering hedge for €220 per 100 plants, with berberis, forsythia, fuchsia, ribes, hydrangea and philadelphus. These are about as far from the dreary suburban leylandii or privet hedge as you can imagine, yet, if desired, they can be shaped and thickened just as easily.
Alternatively, one can create an entirely edible hedge of hazel and beech with thorny sea buckthorn, aronia and Szechuan pepper plants. Both aronia and sea buckthorn berries are cited as super foods, with the former having more antioxidants that even blueberries or gojiberries. Szechuan pepper plants produce good crops of peppercorns, and all three bushes are great for bees. Fruitandnut.ie in Mayo will sell 100 aronia or sea buckthorn plants for about €320, but be warned: sea buckthorn is invasive in sandy soil.
If total wind shelter is a priority on an exposed site consider planting battalion lines of hedging, with perhaps alders and sycamore on the outside and coastal plants like elaeagnus, spindle and blackthorn inside. None of the above are evergreen, but adding leaf-retaining plants such a beech, hornbeam, holly or evergreen oak will provide a year-round barrier as dense as any oppressive Leyland Cypress barricade.
The truth, of course, is that even the simplest hedge will take some time to develop and may require regular watering in its first years, and while native hedging looks best when a bit unkempt and wild, it still will need a trim each winter.
If you simply don’t have time to grow and nurture a hedge, a living wall might be an option. Ever since Patrick Blanc erected his vertical garden on the exterior of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris in 2006, landscapers have been offering similar plant-walls for businesses, and home owners. They claim to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels by 40 per cent and particulate matter by 60 per cent, while also reducing high-frequency noise levels. In Ireland, they gained attention with the creation of a 20sq m example at Bloom in the Park in 2010 by Living Walls (www.livingwalls.ie). But these are high-tech solutions, with the plants grown in a hydroponic medium or perlite-rich soil which is drip-irrigated with water recirculated by pump to minimise waste. The cost of these, according to Land Tech Soils (www.landtechsoils.ie), is €270 per sq m, excluding delivery or installation, and they require annual maintenance.
A simpler vertical garden can be created far more cheaply by screwing old pallets to a wall and attaching plant boxes or even lengths of old guttering in which things like flowers, herbs, lettuces and strawberries can be grown. It can be made entirely from recycled materials, the only expense being some drip-irrigation hose, potentially with a pump to recirculate waste water or capillary action matting which releases water slowly from a tank that is refilled every few weeks.
The point is that whether you choose a wall of herbs, a food-laden hedge, or just a well-trimmed hawthorn mix, you can ensure the same shelter and privacy as from a concrete wall, but with a beauty that is incomparable, and untold added benefits to local biodiversity.