Pleaching a Hedge

This weekend’s work left me with bleeding hands despite my leather gauntlets  – hawthorn and blackthorn inevitably find your weak points.

I lopped the branches growing straight upwards that are too thick and difficult to bend and weave without breaking. The remainder I weave in turn, using them like the binders on the top of a laid hedge. I discovered this anchors the branches & results in a stable framework.

Pleached hedge_in process

Above, the hedge, before I’d lopped or woven any branches this year. Below, the same section when I’d completed it. The uprights arre last year’s growth – mainly Hazel, with some Hawthorn and Beech.

pleached hedge

Once the hedge has been pleached I can see where new hedging is needed – this is the 1st section I ever planted out and where I 1st experiemented with pleaching – you can see the gaps where I’ve not planted close enough. I’m developing the knack of knowing where to prune to encourage new growth to fill these gaps and to weave in next year.

hedge weave[1]

You get a better sense of the rhythm created during pleaching as the hedge undulates up the hillside.

hedge waeve[2]

Now Ive finished it, I want to see how it leafs up, and if the cuttings I’ve planted root well to fill the gaps.

Pleaching or Plashing a Hedge

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.


On our Winter Allotment

The first snow of the year has come and gone, melting in the weak winter sun. We’ve moved the artichokes and, essential in this weather, lit a fire in the fire pit to keep warm when we have our tea. We’re now more or less finished reorganising an area of the allotment that has resulted in creating more beds for growing vegetables, as well as garden areas.

The wet weather before Christmas resulted in a backlog of bulbs sitting in trays, waiting to be planted. A mix of alliums, tulips & the last of the daffodils, along with a few Allium bulgaricum & a bag of fritillaria assyrica left over from the autumn planting. The unseasonably warm weather has allowed us to continue transplanting & re-siting well into winter; it also means planting bulbs is still feasible, if rather late. It is risky, but worth attempting rather than tipping the lot into the compost bin – some of the daffodil bulbs, a few of the tulips, & a significant number of the allium bulgaricum have gone mouldy, while the fritillaria seem to have shrivelled up, but enough look sufficiently healthy to make planting them worth the risk.

Using raised beds has enabled more intensive mixed vegetable planting over the year, & enabled us to think about how we use the space on our plot differently. We’ve started to create bands of flowering plants across the allotment to encourage bumble bees, as well as butterflies; the teasel & echinops seed heads were recently visited by a charm of goldfinches, justifying our decision to leave tidying until the beginning of spring.

The re-siting of the fruit trees left us room for a new Iris bed, at the bottom of a slope which catches the sun all day & tends to bake during the summer, ideal for Iris Germanica –Bearded Iris, as the tubers need to bake in order to encourage the plants to produce flowers. Teresa dug up the iris tubers, which had become ridiculously congested, cut out the old rotten sections & replanted 4” sections with strong flags. The usual time to lift & move Bearded Iris is in July, after flowering, but we didn’t have a new bed ready for them, so it didn’t happen. Moving them now is a risk, & they’re unlikely to flower this year, as they put their energies into establishing their root systems. However, we’re also experimenting with mixed plantings, creating drifts of irises, with alliums interplanted amongst the tubers, & possibly drifts of Achillea in between. The idea is to have contrasting textures amongst the iris flags, & flowers right into autumn-we’ll have to see if this all works-it’s the excitement of experimenting, trying different combinations.


winter allotment

Planting Jim’s Dad’s Garlic Again

A couple of years ago Jim asked us to plant some of his Dad’s garlic. He plants cloves on his birthday and harvests the bulbs on his dad’s birthday. It’s a ritual, a celebration of the memory of his father. He had some cloves and thought we’d like to plant extra garlic. So in they went and we harvested the garlic, ate some and kept some for planting on. His Dad’s garlic has become part of our yearly planting cycle, and is one of the most productive varieties we save each year. We’ve also discovered there are several varieties amongst the garlic we were given, and they’re adapting to our soil conditions.

Jim's Dad's Garlic [1]

They’re in the ground again this year, along with elephant garlic we’ve grown from the bulbils we find every year  on the bulb roots.

Resilience through Seed Saving

You might wonder why I’m writing about seed saving in the middle of winter when we’re recommended to buy our seed from seed catalogues. My winter reading has included ‘The Seed Savers’ Handbook’, with a key section headed “Planning a Seed Garden’. I’ve never really understood this other than as a ‘A good idea’. However, I decided during autumn 2013 to save seed from an Heritage Seed Library Leek variety and this meant re-thinking what I did with the Leek bed. So, back to the seed garden idea.

I generally save seed each year from the easier vegetables, such as lettuce, peas and French Beans, all are self pollinated and don’t cross (easily); I attempted to save broad bean seed about 4 years ago as I had some Heritage crimson flowered seeds, which were quite expensive; I discovered it was possible to save the seed even though all the gardening guides on growing vegetables told me I shouldn’t. What the guidance should have added was, not that I shouldn’t but that I could and should, but also I would need to isolate the variety I intended saving seed from. Unlike French Beans, Broad Beans are similar to Runner Beans and cross-pollinate with plants of the same species. Only after germinating and growing my saved seed did I appreciate what the result might be – I had crimson flowered, pale pink flowered and white-flowered broad bean plants – they’d crossed with the Express Broad Bean variety grown alongside. The way to get back to crimson flowered plants was to rogue out pink & white flowered plants before they cross-pollinated yet again, save seed from the red flowering plants, isolate them and keep saving seed from red flowering plants until I’d selected out the white crosses.  Because cross-pollinating species [out breeders] require a minimum number of plants in order to retain genetic diversity of a variety, this is a time-consuming, although not impossible, task. Again, time reverts to an older framing, seasons and years rather than days or months.

bean seeds

Growing conditions in 2013 made growing food to eat difficult; growing plants to save seed from was equally challenging. The broad beans I intended saving seed from and had isolated with netting (lesson learnt) had all the ripening pods eaten by slugs/snails/squirrels – most likely the squirrels. I didn’t pick those that survived soon enough to dry and ripen off indoors so they rotted in the wet conditions. The same happened to our pea crop marked for seed rather than eating. I did manage to collect the Mooli Radish seed pods from the late sowing I did in early autumn – the pods were almost ready but rain was forecast for several days – I cut the stems and hung them in a warm corner of the kitchen to dry off properly. The good thing about radish seed pods is their hardness so they do survive quite well. However, those left on the allotment provided food for rodents, neat little piles of seed pods at the corners of the beds. However, the lettuce variety I had left to go to seed produced very little viable seed, mainly because they flowered as the weather worsened and it was difficult for pollinators to fly in the wet and wind, so flowers but little pollination and poor seed so I didn’t keep the little that was produced. Therefore, in 2014 I had very little new saved seed and had to rely on what was left from the previous year – I always save more than I’ll ever need, to share, swap, keep some back ‘in case’ I’ve nothing new next year.

Back to my leeks: I left an HSL variety of leek I planted spring 2013 to grow and flower last summer, but I had to plan my beds to accommodate the additional year this group of leek plants were in the ground. I also only saved seed from 1 variety of leek, as these, too, cross-pollinate. Leeks that have flowered sometimes produce bulbils on the flower heads, similar to those I saved from an elephant garlic plant I left to flower just to see what it looked like. These bulbils, according to Cherfas and Fanton in their Seed Savers’ Handbook, can grow faster than seed, so worth saving them if you do see any. Sue Stickland does caution against this in Back Garden Seed Saving, however, since they can carry over leek rust disease which tends to be endemic on allotment sites. However, it was so wet and cold in 2013 that our leek crop avoided rust almost entirely – rust is a fungal disease that develops in hot conditions, so 2013’s cold damp summer meant a healthy leek crop for seed saving.

Knowing more about seed saving and how difficult it can be even with ‘easy’ plants has led me to plan ahead more carefully which varieties I intend to grow for seed and which for food. One thing I’ve learnt about plants I want to save seed from is their categorisation into out breeders and in breeders; Leeks apparently are strong out breeders and should ideally have at least 16 plants for seed to maintain genetic diversity. However, I didn’t realise this when I sowed them, but a way to deal with this, and how to manage seed saving in poor years, is to grow and save seed from the same variety over subsequent years and combine the seed to broaden genetic diversity, over time. The seed remains viable for about 3 years.

The main problem with seeds from the major seed companies is the choice available, usually F1 hybrids that are advertised as ‘reliable croppers’ which usually mean the plants crop at the same time, usual give away: ‘good for the freezer’! These varieties are generally the byproducts of industrial agriculture and are bred for uniformity, cropping at the same time for harvesting by machine, not bred for the allotment grower. The most resilient seed is open pollinated, available from good local seed savers and from local and regional seed companies. Look for information that tells you how the seeds perform in specific conditions. Hybrid seed doesn’t breed true so we go back to the seed companies next year to buy the seed again. I will return to this issue another time, as I’ve discovered its complicated!

Now I understand more about seed saving I’m rather more critical about seed quality, origins, and harvests of anything I’m planning to sow. Consequently I rarely swap my seed at big seed swaps such as Seedy Sunday as the quality and provenance is rarely clear and I’ve picked up some terrible seed in the past. I now swap with other growers on a seasonal basis; Whitehawk Food Project has revived its seed library with their seed and plant swaps; their plan is to share some of their core food crop seeds with a few experienced growers to spread the seed across the city to ensure its survival in case of another terrible growing year like 2013. This makes for a more resilient seed supply, communally grown and shared. It’s also the genesis of a local communal seed bank and the development of seed saving expertise across important food staples, building knowledge about local conditions and seed/crop variability. It’s back to local seed production that reflects local conditions.




A fascination with Garlick

I love growing garlic. When we started this blog, garlic was granted a starring role; I also discovered the joys and disappointments of searching for information about a crop on the web – unsourced and unattributed ‘factoids’ that tell you little! My research training swept into action and the results were HortusLudi’s 1st series of posts drawing upon both historical and botanical sources.

My next obsession is testing growing conditions and trailing new crops and ways of growing things. I’ve just planted out a series of special garlic varieties I received from Julieanne @GwenfarsLottie. Julianne also sent cloves to growers in other parts of the UK and we’re intendng to compare results in the autumn. I’ve therefore set myself a record keeping task, checking & photographing, sharing success & failure. As if last year wasn’t hard work!

A beginning
I’ve begun rather late due to weather and work. I do normally plant out garlic in December and shallots in January/February, so not really late, but certainly not the late autumn/early winter that’s recommended. The main crop went in on Boxing Day, using cloves from last year’s crop. I always select the best & largest & hang those bulbs I intend to plant separately to the bunches for cooking. Despite the rain, we only had a small amount of white rot on the crop in 2012 (endemic across the allotment site) and managed to get it lifted at the beginning of July before the rot spread – it’s only ever present in small intermittent pockets. I planted out a special section with 7 varieties, 2/3 cloves each – the rest of the bed has been planted up with shallots saved from last year’s crop – the sets only expanded slightly rather than multiplied. All 3 garlic beds had seaweed on them through autumn before a top-dressing of our own compost mixed with leaf mould. Some seaweed is still evident but will disappear by spring. This is the 1st time I’ve used seaweed directly on garlic beds, even though it went on in November and has been covered with compost. Risky? I’d say its worth a try: the beds are at the top of our allotment, made of old scaffolding boards, set along a chalk ridge, so are free draining but needed compost to enrich a very chalky soil. I’m hopeful the experiment will work. The planting site gets more sun than the rest of the allotment, from early to late, so this might help the cloves grow and ripen, even if we have similar weather to 2012.

The 7 sets of cloves I’ve planted out – I know, they all look the same, but they are quite different, really :


You can still see the seaweed we put on the bed, but it disappears surprisingly quickly: 30th December 2012. The bed was covered in netting to stop cats, foxes & birds digging in the soil – there was a distinctly foxy smell around the top of the allotment, so probably along a fox route through the site.

So, an experiment started; while the garlic is putting down roots I’ve several new crops to attempt – I’ll tell you about them later.

Nearly forgot practicalities: garlic cloves planted at 7″ intervals in staggered rows, with at least 1″ of soil above the cloves.