Hedge Laying with Beech and Hornbeam

The European Beech (Fagus sylvatica) has been one of England’s most popular hedging plants for over a thousand years. More recent cultivars such as the Purple Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea’) are proving equally suitable and well-loved.
But the Beech used in ancient times weren’t just left to grow as they are in a modern garden hedge (with a little judicious pruning, of course) but were layed – a technique that must rank as one of horticulture’s oldest traditions.
This post, though, is not a tutorial (Google ‘hedge laying’ and you’ll find all the technical advice you could possibly need) but a starting point to whet the appetite of those who might like to bring a hedge that’s little different into their garden by following that very tradition…
Hedge laying (or steeping) is carried out when the sap is not rising – generally between November and March. Beech and Hornbeam are both very well suited.
Assuming you are starting from scratch, the first stage is to plant your Beech and/or Hornbeam as you would for a standard hedge. Once the stems (known as steepers or pleachers) have reached a height of 2.0- 3.5m the serious stuff – the pleaching – can start.
This involves making partial diagonal cuts at the bases of each stem so that it can then be bent almost to the horizontal without breaking – the stem tip must always be slightly higher than the base as sap, unlike water, only travels uphill. Such apparently brutal treatment then shocks the plant into the vigorous production of new shoots that quickly fill in the gaps and produce a near impenetrable – and highly attractive – hedge. Of course, there’s a little more to it than that as you can see from the pictures, but the result is worth the effort.
Given that hedge laying has so long a history right across the country, it is not surprising that distinct regional variations developed and you therefore have many options – if you’re proudly regional, then follow your local tradition, but the maverick approach (a Devon hedge in Yorkshire?) will be equally successful, though questions may be asked!
Other hedge laying styles that could offer an interesting future for your Beech and Hornbeams include:
▫ Lancashire
▫ Westmorland
▫ Brecon (Breconshire, Radnorshire, Herefordshire and Monmouthshire)
▫ Montgomery
▫ The Stake & Pleach (Monmouthshire, Brecknockshire, Radnorshire, Carmarthenshire and Montgomeryshire)
▫ The Flying Hedge (Pembrokeshire, the Gower, Glamorganshire, Monmouthshire and Carmarthenshire)
▫ South of England
▫ Isle of Wight
The Beech and Hornbeam in the finished hedge will be a haven for wildlife, especially if under-planted and once established will require no more regular maintenance than a standard hedge. And as we have lost over 200,000 miles of field and roadside hedgerows, you will also have the satisfaction of doing your bit to redress the balance.