For a couple of days it was perfect hedge-planting weather, bright and cold but windless with a crust of frost just thick enough to protect the ground from trampling while thin enough to break easily with a spade. A few inches down, the dark earth looked (relatively) warm and welcoming for the roots of the new plants. By the third frosty morning the icy crust on the prepared ground was hard and bounced the spade back with a hollow ring.
Rather than adopt the Piglet technique of jumping on the spade, I resorted to the mattock. With this less than delicate implement the frost crust gave easily and the earth underneath was soft and friable but, remembering the gooseberry bushes on my old allotment which never seemed to recover from being planted in holes full of snow, I took care not to backfill round the roots with frozen clods.
Three days planting sounds like quite a length of hedge but I’ve been working slowly to avoid straining a grumbling knee. (I’m sure I should be able to dig left footed to give the right knee a rest but working the wrong way round makes me feel cack-handed as well as wrong-footed). In fact I’ve only spent a couple of hours a day putting in a total of 60 plants along a 20 meter length. That’s pretty slow progress but the bare-rooted plants had such long, strong roots that together they demanded a continuous planting trench a spit and a half deep.
The new hedge will enclose the first section of garden behind the house, separating it from the veg plots, the orchard and the wild ground beyond. In forty years of gardening I’ve never planted a beech hedge before so, as I wanted to get this one off to a good start, I duly read up advice on likely looking web sites. Gardeners’ World suggests planting in a narrow slot trench and trimming off any excess roots. The Garden Shop recommends a trench 2ft wide and 18″ deep (60x40cm) with a thick layer of well rotted manure in the bottom while Barlow Nurseries advise categorically ‘Do not be tempted to pre-dig or “improve” the soil. Do not add any fertiliser.’ In the end I did it my way, as I would if I’d not bothered to look for advice in the first place, dug a trench that was large enough to accommodate all the roots of the most vigorous plants, forked over the bottom and mixed in a handful of bonemeal for each plant. I’ve trimmed off the tips of the shoots, to break apical dominance and encourage branching and that’s it for now.
I’m not sure how high I’ll let the hedge grow but the intention is to enclose and shelter the garden rather than completely cut off the view. In exploring grand French gardens I’ve come to appreciate the crisp, formal lines of evergreen box and yew hedges but this hedge will be a softer, more informal boundary. Beech, like hornbeam, holds on to its autumn leaves through the winter and their gentle russet brown will blend into the landscape more kindly than a dark evergreen line would. Hornbeam rises to the occasion in formal gardens as a precisely trimmed ‘hedge on legs’, like the Parisian one in headline photo at the Palais Royal. That’s not quite the effect I’m aiming at here.
With a nod to French formality I have already planted some box in the garden, to be trimmed in due course into balls or domes. This simple form can look stunning en masse, as here at the Château d’Amboise, but works well as punctuation among drifts of more natural planting too. And if I decide that neatly trimmed balls look too dull or serious I can always turn them into chickens or sheep…