Monthly Archives: April 2011

When is a Row of Trees a Hedge?

Sometimes it’s interesting to see the internet searches that bring people to this blog. The above question was one of them yesterday. It’s a pretty hard question to answer precisely – I’ve got a whole chapter in the book called “What is a Hedge” and I still don’t claim to have the definitive answer, but here are a few quick thoughts.

Firstly, a hedge is traditionally a row of trees or woody shrubs that have been interlinked so as to form a boundary or barrier.

However this can’t be a precise definition. A hedgerow that has become gappy can still be called a hedge. And if I plant a row of trees on a bank or field boundary with the intention of laying them into a hedge, you could still call the row of trees a hedge, even though they are not interlinked.

My general theory is that a hedge is always the result of human intervention in the landscape – hedges can be grown (or early hedges were left on the edge of assarts, clearings in the wildwood), and managed as barriers, boundaries, screens or ornaments. The only kinds of hedge that aren’t intentionally created are fencerows, meaning the lines of vegetation that grow alongside barriers such as walls and fences because they are protected from the elements. But these are still caused by the creation of the original barrier.

In all these cases the hedge exists because of human action. A line of trees is a hedge if it is functioning as a hedge, is intended to become a hedge, was once intended to be a hedge, or grew alongside something else that was intended to function as a barrier or screen.

So I’d suggest that a hedge is never an entirely natural element, and can always be explained in terms of its use or intended use as a barrier, boundary, ornament or screen.


Filed under Historical Hedges, The Hedge Philosopher, Trees

Random thoughts about trees

I mostly spent the long weekend gardening and walking in the woods (Trent Park, on the very edge of the green belt). So here’s a few random thoughts about trees.

Lilac: Our neighbour’s is in full bloom. Beautiful, but seems to be very bad for hay fever.

Yucca: They really, really hate snow. My little one just about survived last winter, but the snow in December seems to have been the last straw so I’ve had to dig it up (replaced with some potted bamboo). Always sad when a tree dies.

Holly: A tiny holly tree had rooted itself in the cracks in my paving, so I eased it out, hopefully with all the roots intact, and have repotted. Fingers crossed. (Also several strawberry plants had grown in the cracks, also repotted, which will please the snails that usually eat any resulting fruit).

Apple, Cherry: For some reason my (nine-year-old) daughter has developed a game in the back of the car where she shouts “Apple” or “Cherry” whenever she sees a tree in blossom. I’m not sure what she is counting as apple trees as I’m sure there are not as many as she shouts out. She spent yesterday afternoon wielding some shears and helping to prune my Russian Vine, which made me a bit nervous but happily no fingers were lost.

Box: My miniature box hedge (three box plants at the edge of the lawn) is actually starting to do quite well. If it gets a bit bigger I might get round to topiarising it, it’s now big enough to make a decent topiary pig, I reckon.

Oak, Hawthorn, Beech: These are the most common species in the bit of Trent Park I was in, all good sturdy British hedge species. There are also a few sycamores, birches and and hornbeams dotted about. All are currently bathed in beautiful fresh spring green – in general the plant world seems to be about a month ahead of what I’d expect for late April. The only worry is that we could really do with some rain soon, as the soil is starting to become very dusty.

Birch: I wish I’d had my camera as loads of the birches in Trent Park  have obviously been coppiced in the past, with new flexible growth coming from the stumps – I will go back sometime to take pictures. It’s all part of the old Middlesex Forest (which also would have covered the area I live in) so even though the woods are quite sanitised, there are some interesting historical remnants – Trent Park was part of Enfield Chase, a royal hunting ground, so forest law would have applied. It also contains a weird old moated isle, Camlet Moat, which seems to have been the home of Geoffrey de Mandeville in the time of the Norman Conquest, but its use probably dates back to Roman times at least.

Fig, Sweet Balsam Poplar, Winter Cherry: My other garden trees are all looking very cheerful so far this year – all are quite small, two to three years old, but finally getting established. They make a huge difference to my little garden as it would otherwise be a bit flat.

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Filed under Everyday Hedges, Historical Hedges, Trees

Hedge, that divides the lovely

This is a sixteenth century poem by Torquato Tasso.

Hedge, that divides the lovely

Hedge, that divides the lovely
Garden, and myself from me,
Never in you so fair a rose I see
As she who is my lady,
Loving, sweet and holy:
Who as I stretch my hand to you
Presses it, so softly, too.

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Filed under Literary Hedges

A House-Shaped Hedge

Thanks to Pat Baker (quisnovus on Flickr) for this fabulous picture of a hedge.

(it’s also on

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Filed under Everyday Hedges, Topiary

The May Tree in Blossom

I’ve been up north in Lancashire for a few days – nice to see that the may blossom is out pretty much everywhere on the hawthorn hedges and trees, not just in the south.

Hawthorn is derived from the Old English haga-thorn, meaning hedge-thorn, which shows how long it has been in use as a hedging plant. A lot of magical qualities are ascribed to it, including being a home for the fairies.

It is also known as the May Tree, because the blossom traditionally appeared in late April/early May (spring has been coming a little earlier lately). The blossom was collected for the May Day or Beltane festivals, for decoration, to celebrate new life, and for rituals such as the May Queen and Green May.

The government is currently trying to scrap the May Day bank holiday. It’s worth bearing in mind that this holiday goes back much further than its recent role as a workers’ day(which is presumably why it riles the Tories) to ancient times when it was a celebration of spring in all its glory. If they do take the bank holiday away I think we should respond with a mass skive on future May Days.

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Filed under Everyday Hedges, Hedges and Biodiversity

How to date a hedge

“Hooper’s Law” gives us a way to estimate the age of a hedgerow (Max Hooper is a scientist who studied and wrote about hedgerows and biodiversity.)

The simplest method is to count the number of species of tree or shrub found in a 100 ft length of hedge. This number (averaged over three or more sample stretches) multiplied by 100 gives a rough estimate of the age of the hedge. So a hedge with an average of five woody species might be tentatively dated to the 16th century. (There are more complicated versions, but they give similar results).

However, it is important to bear in mind that Hooper’s Law is a rule of thumb and can only be used alongside other dating techniques such as local history, old maps, study of the field patterns, other flora in the hedge and so on.

An example of hedges where Hooper’s Law gives a misleading result comes from the area around the Stiperstones in Shropshire – squatters and free miners of the 18th and 19th century planted a lot of domestically useful trees in their smallholding hedges, including fruit trees, spindle, laburnum (for the wood) and gooseberries, so there are more woody species than one would expect.



Filed under Historical Hedges

Food from the hedgerow

All sort of foods can be found in rural hedgerows, which made them a traditional foraging place for the “common people.”

Fruit and nut trees included crab apple, damson, wild cherry, hazel, and pear. Flowers and fruits were used to make drinks such as blackberry or elderberry wine, sloe gin, cider and perry. And while it would now be illegal to trap birds or take their eggs, it was a common practise in the past. Firewood was also often taken from hedges, although the crime of “hedgebreaking” was introduced to try and prevent this.

If you want to go foraging in hedgerows, the classic book on the subject is Richard Mabey’s Food for Free. A more recent option is the excellent River Cottage Handbook No. 7 by John Wright which includes advice on species such as bilberries, blackberries, cloudberries, common mallow, dandelions, hedge garlic, horseradish, pignuts, nettles, sloes, sweet chestnuts, water mint and wild cherries, as well as a rundown on the current legal situation regarding foraging on various forms of land.

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Filed under Everyday Hedges, Historical Hedges