Walking in a thick pleached alley in mine orchard
William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act 1 scene 2
I’ve started belated work on pruning the hedges around our allotment; the boundary has been planted out, over time, with a mix of Hazel, Beech, Hornbeam, Hawthorn and Blackthorn. During the last 4 years I’ve collected hedging seeds while out walking in autumn, stratifying them over winter, then planting in seed beds before lining the seedlings out to grow on. This way I’ve grown seedlings of Field Maple (Acer campestre), Spindle Bush (Euonymus europaeus) and Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus), alongside Dog Rose (Rosa canina), Wild Cherry (Prunus avium) and a range of crab apples, all of which are beginning to find their way into sections as I prune and identify gaps during the bare winter months. The oldest of the sections is 10 years old and looks quite substantial, if a bit haphazard, while the lower hedge is dominated by Hornbeam due to damp ground at the bottom of our plot, a reminder of the stream flowing beneath the haulage way.
I began experimenting with pleaching when the hedges needed some serious pruning, yet their growth had not created a sufficiently dense barrier. Pleaching or plashing [ Middle English plechen from Norman French plechier, Old French plessier, French plessier, plaissier, to weave] is to interweave, twist or plait growing branches of hedging and tree species, along with dead branches, to create a stock proof barrier and field boundary marker. As a hedge-making technique, pleaching was common from the medieval period; however, hedges are considered to have existed across most of Britain during the Anglo Saxon period, with the oldest living hedge, Judith’s Hedge in Cambridgeshire, which marks both a parish and a Hundred boundary, thought to date from a period of field creation in the 11th century. Given the evidence for Anglo-Saxon hedges, and the need for stock proof barriers and boundary markers as agricultural enclosure proceeded, pleaching as a hedge-making technique is likely to have been an evolving practice.
As an horticultural technique it is more usually associated with formal gardens, with our contemporary perceptions of its use shaped by Le Notre’s use of pleached lime and hormbeam as living architecture in his designs for Versailles. It is important to recall that Le Notre, from a family of gardeners, grew up in a house within the Tuileries gardens, where he would have acquired practical horticultural knowledge. The historical appropriation and re-making of a technique has resulted in its original informal and agricultural use becoming submerged beneath later cultural forms.
Informal pleaching doesn’t require the supports needed to create the geometric lines of more formal hedges, as the aim is to create a densely intertwined ‘fence’ that supports itself and acts as a barrier. All outward branches or breast wood are either pruned out if too woody to bend and twist successfully, or woven together with neighbouring branches to fill a gap. I’ve learnt to be ruthless in pruning overcrowded sections; the pruning process stimulates dormant buds to break so I now prune new sections quite hard to produce strong branches to weave in next year. The Hazel is particularly productive and yields an ample supply of pea supports each spring. Where the hedge is more established and has reached the height we need, I’ve cut out the leaders to encourage bottom and side growth. We end up with a series of arches, one hedging plant curving into the next, as the hedge gently undulates up the hillside.
While researching the origins of pleaching I discovered another method associated with it, for producing hedges from cuttings. A Quickset Hedge is created by planting live Hazel and Hawthorn cuttings directly into the ground to root, thus establishing a dense boundary inexpensively and rapidly. The term, 1st recorded in 1484, doesn’t imply quickness as in fast, but quick as in live cuttings, from the earlier meaning of quick as alive [the quick and the dead]. This method can be used successfully with a range of shrubs and trees that root freely. When I prune the boundary hedge in late winter, I always take hardwood cuttings to root them for future use; this year I’m trying out the Quickset method on sections that need more substantial planting, using Hawthorn, Blackthorn and Hazel. As Hornbeam and Beech grow more slowly and will be in danger of becoming overwhelmed before they establish properly, I will take hardwood cuttings and line them out in my cuttings bed to grow on before using them in the hedge.
So, our plot boundary hedge represents my experiments with propagating hedge species alongside developing informal pleaching techniques, interspersed with a bit of quickset hedge creation; a process that quite probably mirrors the ways hedge making has evolved over time.