Hedging Bets

The back garden is roughly a long rectangle in shape. The two long sides are framed with hedges, rhododendron ponticum for one and beech for the other. We’ll gloss over the bamboo screen that we used to have as that’s now been replaced with more beech, continuing the line of that hedge all the way to the back. They’re a major feature of the garden and it’s taken a staged approach over several years to get them both back under control.

Inheriting a major rhododendron

We hadn’t encountered hedge maintenance before in our first garden and when we inherited this garden, both hedges were in good shape, but they had grown very large in height and width and required renovation, which isn’t just an annual trim, but a “get the chain saw” job. We had an initial attempt with the beech hedge and that ended up looking like a really bad haircut. It would be a few years before we had the tools, confidence and desperation to try again. It was also a few years before the evidence of our terrible attempt grew out.

Bad haircuts and towering hedges

The beech hedge was the first one to receive a height reduction in one year (filling a would-be border with beech tops that have only recently been disposed of). We then waited for a few years for the hedge to recover and fill-in a bit before it got a “diet” cut and I reduced the width dramatically, allowing us to finally walk down both sides of Fruit Avenue without being scratched to pieces. The beech hedge is still generously wide for its height and this allows wider domesticity options for the birds.

A more salubrious alley

The beech hedge is now finally at the height I want to keep it and almost the width I want too (there are a few small areas where I will take it in a little more so it looks even from above). The next piece of TLC will be to fertilise and mulch the hedge base. The ground we recovered from narrowing the hedge also needs to be sown with grass as we have a half-and-half path at the moment. There was a lot of rampant ivy growing in the beech and I took quite a lot of it out to give the beech some “breathing room”. The ivy will come back over time and I’ll keep it confined to within the hedge and under control.

Getting the hedges under control – part 1

Meanwhile, the rhododendron initially towered over most things in the garden, even the trees. It was intimidatingly huge and threatened to subsume the greenhouse. Our neighbour – very handily a landscape gardener – reduced the height of this hedge significantly, almost by half and even then it still towers over head-height. The width was also a problem, despite trimming the hedge back most years, it would gradually creep further and further outwards, incrementally taking more and more space until the path between the hedge and the planned border was so narrow that it was only one-person wide, and even then it required you to lean.

Lowering the beech hedge

The rhododendron needed a more drastic renovation than the beech and so with the help of aforementioned neighbour, we spent an afternoon taking the hedge right back almost to the main trunks. I then spent several days fine-tuning the pruning and neatening the cut ends. The rhododendron hedge is now genuinely “hand-finished” and my arms and wrists are still feeling it.

Rhododendron gradually expanding outwards

Beech wouldn’t appreciate this level of renovation, but rhododendron easily re-sprouts even along thick branches so although the hedge face looks severe now, it will all re-shoot and fill in again. Along with the renovation was pulling out decades of built-up dead wood, sticks and branches that had fallen into the middle. We filled several bulk bags with rhododendron prunings and then almost the same number again with all the dead wood we pulled out. This painfully tedious exercise – that took several days and left me with very scratched-up arms – should “decongest” the centres of the rhododendron and allow much more light in to stimulate the latent buds to shoot.

In all, we’re gradually getting into the pattern of hedge pruning. From shaky and clueless beginnings to finally getting the renovation pruning for both hedges finished, all that’s left is some TLC and then keeping up with annual trimming, the beech in autumn and the rhododendron in summer after flowering. I should add that the renovation of the hedges has given us around 7% of the garden back and I’m already planning the possibilities for all that extra space.

Possible pergola and planting opportunities

Tight-rope paths are now as wide as a taxiway so I’m dreaming of pergolas. I have an old blog post that talks of bending the rules when it comes to only planting in borders. The base of the plant where it meets the soil has to be in border but that doesn’t stop me from sending it overhead and over the grass, if it has the means to do so…

6 Comments


  1. That sounds like a big job! I’ve never had a hedge but have seen loads of them here that are butchered beyond repair along the sides and left with a little growth on top. They’re hideous but yours looks great!

    Reply

    1. Thanks Tammy, I admit they do look rather shell-shocked, but it’s the same process the neighbour did to his rhododendron hedge with his other neighbour a couple of years ago and it’s greened-up again fine.

      Reply

  2. That rhododendron hedge is acting like it lives in a beautiful English woodland garden with acres and acres to spread out. How brave you are to keep it slim and trim!

    Reply

    1. Thanks Jane. The ironic thing is that Rhododendron Pontium was introduced, escaped and is now invasive in woodlands. There are forest management programs around us that clear them out every so often as they smother local flora. Renovation is always a shock and looks awful for a while but it will quickly re-shoot from the wood and it won’t even be noticeable in a couple of years.

      Reply

    1. Thanks, Jason, it was kind of thrust upon us when we inherited the garden. I’m much more confident about managing the hedges now and am glad to have given them some TLC. an out-of-control hedge is a great deal of work.

      Reply

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