MONTY DON TALKS HORNBEAM

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One of Monty Don’s many favourite plants is the Hornbeam. Here, he explains why and, more controversially, compares it (as many often do) to the Beech…

Autumn Planting at Hedge Xpress

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Beech 1.5m

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“In this country at least, we tend to focus most of our horticultural energy and attention on flowers and vegetables.

But it is better to think of these as the furniture and furnishings of a room; the garden’s hedges, trees, shrubs, walls and paths are the architecture.”

 “…I planted this garden with extensive hornbeam hedges. The odd thing is that hornbeam is not a common hedge. This could be because people don’t like it, preferring beech, which it superficially resembles. But, in almost every respect, hornbeam makes a superior hedge to beech, particularly if you wish to pleach or train it. The best – or at least most famous – example of a pleached hornbeam hedge-on-stilts is at Hidcote in Gloucestershire, where there are a pair of hedges raised 5ft in the air poised above the ‘stilts’ of their trunks.”

“Hornbeam is similar to beech in that, if the leaves are clipped in midsummer, many will stay on the branches all winter, although they turn a paler, duller tawny than beech’s auburn. These leaves have serrated edges like little teeth and veins divided by gentle corrugated troughs. In spring, they are the freshest, most exciting green conceivable and to look at them is to make your eyes dance.”

“Conventional gardening wisdom has it that beech only grows happily on chalky soil and that hornbeam needs heavy clay to thrive, and I have been guilty of parroting this maxim from time to time. But, in fact, beech will grow perfectly well on acidic soil with a clay subsoil, and hornbeam, while certainly very happy on a rich clay soil, ‘thrive best on fresh and well-drained sand or gravel soils’, according to HL Edlin in British Woodland Trees (Batsford – mine was second-hand). My own empirical observation is that hornbeam grows very fast indeed if it has plenty of moisture, particularly when young and that it responds dramatically to a rich, well-dug planting ground. It will also grow well in heavy shade, albeit a little less luxuriantly than in open sunlight. The long and the short of it is that I believe hornbeam to be the best deciduous hedging plant available to the gardener – and I am a huge fan.

Hornbeam is a tough tree and, once grown, takes a lot of punishment. But it doesn’t like sitting in water and can rot. I lost a number of my hedging plants as a result of last year’s flooding.”

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