Hedge your bets with beech

Hedge your bets with beech
Tunnel-like avenue of intertwined beech trees called Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland is the popular tourists attraction. Picture: iStock

Beech trees and hedges illustrate the changing seasons to perfection, according to Peter Dowdall.

For me, one of the most attractive features of the winter landscape here in Ireland and in the UK is the chocolate-brown beech hedge.

Green beech or Fagus sylvatica is a native tree in these parts and if grown as a tree and left unpruned it will become a very large specimen, suited only to very large gardens, estates and native woodlands.

Beech trees will lose their leaves during autumn and winter and those dormant leaf buds will burst back into growth the following spring. With or without foliage a mature beech tree is a magnificent sight.

Grown as a hedge however, beech can be maintained at, pretty much, whatever height you want it.

When planting a new beech hedge, space the plants about 50cm apart and ideally plant a double staggered row leaving about 50cm between the rows and starting the second row behind and in the middle of, the 50cm gap of the first row.

This will lead to a dense, thick hedge relatively quickly.

When grown in this way and maintained as a hedge, beech won’t lose its foliage over the winter months.

No, it retains it and this is what creates that beautiful, russet, copper colour, evident in so many hedges around the country at the moment.

It is a deciduous plant and the leaves do die off in the autumn as a result of nature’s calendar moving on.

Reduced hours of sunlight and lower temperatures leads to the chlorophyll in the leaves breaking down and thus the green colour disappears.

However, as the plants have been pruned regularly to maintain them as a hedge, the leaves remain on the end of the branches until bud burst the following spring when the new growth pushes the dead leaves off so that the fresh, new foliage can emerge.

Watching nature breathing life back into the countryside and our gardens each spring is another highlight of the gardening year as that switch goes off in each one of us and we long for the great outdoors once more.

Very few plants represent that new season of fresh growth as much as the new leaves on the beech hedge.

It’s crisp, clean and delicate looking but that pristine look only stays for a few short days or perhaps weeks before it takes on its more constant, summer appearance.

The changing seasons are one of the fabulous things about living and gardening in this part of the world and beech hedges illustrate this beautifully each year, offering us changing colours with each season which make them, for me, so much more than just a boundary fence.

The seasonality of their appearance reminds us that they are alive and connected to the energy all around us and not just a concrete wall.

In times of old and before the emergence of modern garden centres, it was recommended that plants should only be planted during months with an “r” in the name.

Hedge your bets with beech

Namely September to April. That was before most plants were grown in nurseries and fields and not in plastic or ceramic pots as they are now.

When you lift a plant out of the ground, you inevitably damage some of the extremities of the root system.

If you do this, during high summer, the plant will most likely die for it is through these extremities and the root hairs that plants absorb water and nutrients from the soil and during the summer, an actively growing plant needs all the water it can get.

Instead, lifting plants out of the ground during late autumn and winter, means that plants have an opportunity to repair such damage before they actively begin to grow again during the springtime.

Hence the logic of only planting during months with an “r”.

Commercial horticulture may have changed and everything may now be available in brightly-coloured plastic pots but nature hasn’t changed her ways and so, bare root plants, those which have been grown in the traditional manner in nursery fields, are only available from November to March.

It’s really only hedging plants and some trees which are still grown in this way and if you are planning to plant a hedge this year be it beech or another species, then, using bare root plants will, not only be much easier on the pocket as they are far cheaper to produce but you will also be creating less plastic waste as those wretched black plastic pots, which most of our plants are grown in, are often not recyclable.

The gardening industry is changing I am glad to say and many nurseries are now producing plants in recyclable pots but there’s still a long way to go.

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