Finding its way to southern England after the last ice age, Fagus sylvatica or the European Beech, is deservedly considered a classic plant for hedging and is popular throughout the country which is why they grow so well in most conditions and soil types that we have. Easy to maintain, long-lasting and happy in any well-drained soil (including chalk) and most locations, its fame really rests on its foliage. Every spring it throws out new green foliage which turns to a coppery brown in autumn but, crucially, stays on the plant until next year’s leaves start to appear (a process called marcescence). A beech hedge therefore offers attractive, year-round screening and, for a while, stunning dual-coloured foliage.
To produce a dense hedge as quickly as possible, plant beech in a double row using container grown plants as is slow to establish.
Initially, beech plants can be slow to establish but after 2 years they’ll begin to grow much quicker; if they’re pot grown. At Hedge Xpress we only sell pot grown hedging. This will mean that, as long as their handled correctly, there should be no failures when they’re planted. Something that will save you from having to fill any gaps later down the line.
Planting Beech Hedges
Once they’ve established, beech hedges work well in most conditions. As long as soil doesn’t have too much clay and there’s a good amount of drainage, the plants should thrive. How you plant a hedge will depend on how thick and large you’re hoping for it to grow. 1.5 plants per metre will work for a single line hedge and 3 for a double row. Having the plants spaced 66cm apart and offsetting them by around 30cm, creating a ‘W’ shape, should leave you with the perfect setting for a dense hedge.
Beech hedges don’t need a lot to get going if they’ve been grown in a pot. The roots simply need a chance to bed out into the soil. The plants won’t need any clipping or shaping in the first year. All you need to do is keep them free from weeds and make sure they’re well-watered. The most common reason for failure is when they’re not adequately watered whilst their trying to establish themselves.
For the first few years of growth your hedge won’t need trimming down. Instead you should use this time to encourage growth and build density. Taking back the longer shoots and slightly clipping shorter ones will help to achieve this.
You can then begin to concentrate on shaping them once they’ve gained some height.
Beech Hedging At-A-Glance
Foliage Type: Semi- Evergreen
Ease of maintenance: ✯✯✯✯✯
Drought Resistance: ✯✯✯✯✯
Soil type: Acid or Alkaline
Preferred situation: Sun / Light shade
Growth Rate: Medium / Strong
Soil and Situation: Beech will tolerate just about all conditions and locations: wet or dry, sunny or shaded, acid or alkaline – any except those in exceptionally cold and/or exposed locations and/or offering poor drainage like heavy clay. In these circumstances hornbeam is a better choice.
Maintenance: Prune in early August to ensure leaves are retained. Once the desired height has been achieved, prune annually to maintain.
Versatility: In one sense, beech excels at just one fundamental job – the boundary hedge par excellence. But its willingness and ability to perform this task in such a wide variety of locations is itself a form of versatility.
Pruning: Prune in early August to maximise leaf retention. Once the desired height has been achieved, prune annually to maintain.
And finally: To witness Fagus Sylvatica’s ultimate potential, visit Meikleour in central Scotland and the magnificent Meikleour Beech Hedge. Planted in 1745, it now stands 30m high and 530m long – making it both the world’s highest and longest hedge. Trimming this record breaker requires a little more than the few hours it takes to keep its more modest brethren in shape, but having reached such dimensions, at least the task only has to be done every ten years.
How to plant and grow a Beech Hedge
HOW TO PREPARE THE GROUND
Preparing the ground properly is essential and a little extra time and care will pay dividends:
1. Dig a hole with a garden fork to twice the depth of the fork removing all weeds, rhizomes and any large stones or other detritus. (Keep small stones as these are good for drainage)
2. Fill the furrow with water and allow it to drain (unless planting in mid-winter)
3. Remove the Beech from their containers and plunge into a bucket of water for a short while to drive out the air
4. Add organic matter, such as garden compost, and rake in a general-purpose fertilizer
5. Place your hedging plants into the furrow with the top of the pot at soil level, back fill and firm with your heel to ensure good contact
NB: How near to a fence or wall can I plant a hedge? As a general rule allow an absolute minimum of 45cm though, to be on the safe side, 60cm would be advisable – and wider if you are planning on letting your new hedge grow to a height of two metres plus.
If you have followed the simple guidelines for planting, a new Beech hedge needs little further attention – but it can’t be neglected. During the first few years:
1. Keep the area around your hedging plants weed-free. Use mulch to suppress weeds and retain moisture
2. Top dress annually after with a general purpose fertilizer once the plant is fully established
3. In late spring nip out the ‘leader’ and clip the sides to make the hedge fuller. The hedge will put up a new leader within a short time
4. Support plants that are rocked by wind
5. Water frequently, especially during dry spells
Beech Hedges and Wildlife
Birds: The Beech nut is an important food for many species including Great Tit, Jay, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch and Siskin. These are produced on female plants and appear after around ten years.
Mammals: The Beech nut is equally popular with small mammals including mice, squirrels and – importantly -rare voles.
Insects: Beech foliage is eaten by the caterpillars of several moths, including the barred hook-tip, clay triple-lines and olive crescent.
Birds: If trimmed in early August, a Beech hedge will keep its leaves, offering privacy to humans and an excellent habitat for garden birds.
Mammals: The thick shelter of an established Beech hedge offers a wide variety of mammals both temporary shelter or a home
Insects: Over 60 insect species have been recorded living in Beech
If you are planting a longer Beech hedge, then do consider letting one, two or more of the plants grow as a tree. A Beech left to its own devices will reach c.4m after ten years. Not only will your hedge become a domesticated hedgerow, once the trees grow taller than the hedge, they will start to provide an even richer habitat for hole-nesting birds, wood-boring insects and a home for a broad selection of fungi, mosses and lichen.