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.


Taking Stock

We’re south west facing, gardening on the slope of a valley. The soil’s rich on the valley floor, from years of adding, working, improving, and we’ve managed to enrich the chalk ridges up the valley side too, but the soil’s still not as good as the lower beds.

Because of the aspect, we’re in sunshine a good part of the day, and catch the late evening sun too, and so we’ve decided to build another shed at the top of the allotment; the soil, what there is of it, is poor, mostly chalk ridge. So we scavenged joists from a building site nearby, enough to construct a large platform. The shed’s yet to be built but it’s enough at the moment to sit up here on a winter afternoon; it’s peaceful, relaxing.

A couple of days ago we sat watching one of our resident Robins feeding from a fat ball we’d crushed into a tray. In the middle of the garden, just below the existing shed, Blue Tits, a Blackbird, and a pair of Jays fed from birdfeeders hung on one of the apple trees. A Robin pecked at the debris, below.

We’ve been repairing beds, pruning and weaving the hedge on both sides of the allotment, and excavating to begin making a pond. We need space to grow, but we also need places to sit, relax, enjoy the variety of wild life that will hopefully colonise the area as the pond becomes established. Still, it’s early days, nothing but a hole in the ground and a mound of earth and muddy chalk at the moment.

The allotment’s often quiet at this time of year, a few people scattered across the site, but otherwise not much evidence of activity. It’s lovely sitting on the platform, and we can imagine the shed, which will be built, one way or another, over the winter, assuming we can find one on Freecycle, or maybe by word of mouth.







Spring Cleaning

Sunday afternoon, the clouds cleared and it felt like the first truly sunny day of the year, warm on the hillside but still cool at the bottom of the allotment.

Over the weekend we’ve been clearing the allotment, planting out new hedging, pruning and thinning existing hedges that have been neglected; our foray into fruit tree pruning has given us courage and a bit more knowledge about the process. We ended up with an enormous amount of wood, so we lit a rare bonfire to burn the diseased applewood that John pruned out last week. We also burnt the hawthorn, blackthorn and bramble – all the vicious stuff – and added the smaller branches to the compost heap to open it up, encourage more oxygen to circulate.

Our hedges badly needed pruning into shape, particularly where they’re growing out into the boundary paths. We’ve also allowed the flowering currant to grow too large. The bushes make a brilliant shady area in the summer but they’ve grown over a path making it impossible to use. Now that the sun’s shifted we also need to thin and lower the hedge at the bottom of the allotment so that the beds get more sun later in the day. We planted a hazel six years ago and it now has some very useful straight trunks ready for use as beanpoles; we’ll coppice it to the ground to encourage new growth for harvesting as native-grown beanpoles, instead of buying imported bamboo. Unfortunately, not all the growth will be useable; the local council send in contractors once a year who mutilate all the hedges without prior notice and the hazel became a victim of this ‘management’ practice two years ago. A case of ‘managing’ rather than understanding or caring about growing practices. Tick the box, job done, contract fulfilled, doesn’t matter that they’ve just ruined a hedge. Continue reading

Pruning: The principal Art of a Gardner

The principal Art of a Gardner, consists in pruning: for which observe these rules:
Learn first to know the bearing buds from the leafe buds, & those which will be fruite-buds next yeare; sparing all the fruite buds on standard Apples, Peares & wall-fruite with discretion.
(John Evelyn, Directions for the Gardiner: 106).

I am sadly lacking in that discretion about pruning implied by John Evelyn. However, I can learn first to know a fruit bud from a leaf bud by asking advice from more experienced gardeners, as, until now I would be loath to count myself a Gardner, in Evelyn’s sense.

February is cold, but there’s plenty to do: repairs, refelting the shed roof, cleaning tools, preparing beds for spring planting, tidying, getting things in order, feeding the birds. Pruning has never seemed to be one of them, as I’ve not had the confidence to tackle it properly. But this is when we should be pruning our fruit trees. I’ve always meant to do it – through the winter months to February, March at a stretch. Instead, we’ve taken the worst course, hacked branches off when they’ve got in the way or were broken, damaging our smaller apple tree through neglect born of ignorance of its needs, of how we might encourage healthier growth. Continue reading