Make your hedges work twice as hard – and look good enough to eat – by incorporating trees and shrubs that are decked with edibles. We share our favourite scrumptious screenings…
Let’s face it, not everyone has Mr McGregor-enthusiasm for edibles. And when it comes to fruit, it can seem out of reach – especially if space is at a premium.
But here at Abbotswood we’ve been recommending that our Cambridge clients ‘grow up’! Not in an insulting way, of course, but with a spot of vertical allotmenting.
While hedges are often thought of in purely practical terms, used as visual screens, noise barriers or to green up unsightly boundary lines, few of us consider the possibility of adding edibles into the mix.
Training fruit bushes, nut trees and aromatic herbs into hedges utilises valuable vertical space and takes up less room than conventional plantings. Planted as bare roots before mid-March, they can be inexpensive and easy to plant.
What’s more, these living walls allow you to forage as you would on a countryside verge, without setting foot outside your garden gate.
What to consider
Lots of edible plants can be trained and clipped. It pays to think seasonally, however, and choose plants that will give you interest year round. Think: winter pickings from blackthorn for sloe gin, elderberry for spring flowers and autumn berries, and dog rose for summer flowers and autumn hips.
A mixed hedge, made up of lots of different species, might be trickier to maintain as each shrub or tree will need a specific style of pruning to stay productive. However, they can look glorious on a dull boundary, attract all manner of wildlife and give the widest possible pickings.
If your hedge is used for screening, you may also want to consider having more edible evergreens in the mix. Olives, for example, stay partially leafy for most of the year unless the temperature really dips.
Herbs can offer a loose, low growing but highly aromatic hedge. Great for flowerbed edges or graveled or decked areas, and wonderful to brush past in the height of the summer.
Try lemon balm, bay or rosemary, which can get quite big if left to romp. Or zesty aloysia citrodora (lemon verbena) and Myrtus communis subs tarentiana. The latter can look beautiful as a hedge with its leathery, evergreen leaves and edible white berries. Coloured sages and thyme also keep their shape well.
Coming to fruition
There’s nothing better than collecting punnets of fruit from your own garden too. Step over fruits that have been horizontally cordon trained are ready-made border boundaries. The best results come from spur fruiting apples trees, which you can grow from maiden whips (essentially one year old trees with no side branches). Tie the whip to a post, allowing 2m between trees, and gradually bend the tree onto horizontal wires. Be patient – it can take a whole growing season!
Damsons are excellent too. Hardier than plums they can create a fruitful windbreak up to 4-5m high. Like most stone fruit they’ll require a soil with a high pH so consider adding some general-purpose fertiliser to the planting hole and a bit of lime.
Other fruiting trees such as crab apple and quince also work well. Crab apples offer pretty, pink-budded blossom and white flowers before the fruit. The miniature apples can be made into jelly or mixed with other apples for juicing.
Chanomoles forms of quince form a dense hedge. Pink Lady has superb colour and tiny yellow fruits, which make lovely jellies and jams, or pies and crumbles when combined with other fruit.
In the semi shade of a hedge it is possible to grow raspberries and gooseberries, and redcurrants and black currants grow well as a hedge, thought the crop tends to be smaller. Loganberries are good option as they trail over a large distance, as are cultivated forms of blackberries.
Or you could go nuts! As mixed or single species hedges, hazels have a lot to offer. Lime green foliage, which turns orange in autumn, golden catkins and of course nuts. For a good harvest, ensure you don’t nip off the female flowers (which appear close to the catkins) when trimming.
Petal shaped perimeters
On many plants the flowers that precede the fruit can also be edible. Fuchsia splendens, for example, has a citrusy tang, while ‘Ballerina’ can reach up to 3m high.
And though elder is often grown for its berries, the flat, creamy flower heads also make a wonderful ‘champagne’. The plants have the benefit of being fast growing too, and can come into leaf as early as January.
As with all hedging, consider a dose of mycorrhizal fungi in the planting hole to get them off to a good start. Mulch in summer when the weather heats up and keep them well watered.
And the golden rule with any hedging is to plant as if they are fully grown specimens. Give them plenty of room to spread and they will reward you with lots of growth, and more importantly, lots to eat!