Hedge Power: Growing Our Way to Health

Looking outside my bedroom window in the morning, I see birds. In the fall it was brown and spotted towhees bobbing and hopping through the hedgerow planted outside, looking for any remaining grapes or for insects in the grasses beneath. In summer, it was sparrows, titmice, and bluebirds sampling the young grapes, testing for ripeness. These grapes get no extra water in the summer or any extra care from me, so the fruits tend to be prolific but small. I browse on them too, only occasionally picking a whole cluster.

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Grapes and Rose attract many birds

Today is mid-March in what’s been a mild winter with a couple of hard freezes just a week ago. The shrub rose next to the grape vine in this hedge is fully leafed out. The lavender-pink blossoms are hanging due to the frost, but still showing color. Roses are a great medicine with astringent properties that tone the gut as well as the skin. Emotionally, they are known to “gladden the heart” through their fragrance and beauty. I like to pick some of the flowers and chop the petals into salads or sprinkle over hash browns for a dash of color.

Further down the hedgerow, looking out a different window, I see the vivid blue flowers of rosemary. This part of the row is near my front door. I can easily step outside to grab a rosemary sprig for my cooking. As a thick evergreen shrub, it provides hideouts for small birds, and on a sunny afternoon hummingbirds will zing by, checking it out for nectar.

In late spring the artichoke in this hedge will send up a cluster of flower stalks. We eat most of them, letting a few bloom to feed the bees. The wide strap leaves of Amaryllis are poking already from under the edge of the rosemary. In late May or June, they will share their delectable perfume and bright pink, trumpet-shaped flowers.

Chives and kale are two others tucked into the hedgerow. The chive clump is big enough to satisfy my cooking needs. The kale reseeds itself and has been around for many years. I pick the young, tender leaves for sautés.

Lemon verbena is another medicinal shrub that grows here. The summer fragrance is intensely lemony, and bees love these flowers. I chop the leaves and mix with raspberries and rose petals in cider vinegar, letting the medicines steep into the vinegar over the course of a month or so before straining them out. This has become a favorite household staple, mixed into a refreshing summer drink or used for simple oil and vinegar salad dressings.

Pomegranate and bamboo are also part of the plant mix, and a brown turkey fig provides an anchor at the far end of the planting. This is a mixture of plants that might not work together in any other context, yet each brings beauty, functionality, and delights I hadn’t planned for because of the hedgerow design.

What is a Hedgerow?

At its simplest, a hedgerow is a mixed community of plants that creates a boundary or border within a landscape. It may be a very small plant community covering only a few dozen square feet or it may extend for many miles. Hedgerows can be straight as an arrow or sinuous and curvy like a river. They fit in both formal and informal landscapes, in small gardens or large farms, on ranches and in cities.

I may be pushing the definition of hedgerow a tad when I refer to the grapes outside my bedroom. These do have a wire fence to lean on, while a classic hedgerow is more completely freestanding. However, the mixed nature of my planting and the flow of one plant into the next makes it very like a hedgerow.

Hedgerows are often thought of as a useful strategy, but not a beautiful one. It’s true that they have most often been used to create windbreaks, divide farm fields, prevent erosion, or create a screen, but none of these uses prevents us from designing them for beauty as well – or from including plants that offer us or other creatures the medicines and foods we need.

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Hedgerows are a simple way to design a soil-healing dynamo into your landscape.

Why Plant a Hedgerow?

Hedgerows are medicine for our landscapes. Whether you live in an urban or rural area, chances are the soil beneath your feet could use some help becoming fully vital and able to do all the things it can do: feed plants, sequester carbon (and lots of it), infiltrate and store rainwater, provide a home to a multitude of creatures, and support all higher forms of life – including us!

In addition to being a tool that restores health to soils, hedgerows can also be designed to create habitat and food for a wide range of wildlife; produce medicines and food for humans; modulate the flows of wind and water; and add beauty to our landscapes. Few simple strategies can offer the versatility and abundance created by a hedgerow.

Hedgerows are also easy to install and require much less maintenance than a vegetable garden or orchard while producing plenty of things to eat. The synergy created by a few well-chosen plants allows those plants to take care of each other, making less work for you. In a less formal garden, hedgerows require little care to establish and even less after that. Some pruning to keep things in balance may be all you need to do after the first few years.

There is no one formula for creating a hedgerow – that’s part of their versatility. Climate, topography, and your landscape goals all play a part in creating a hedgerow design. No matter how the hedgerow interacts with these elements, however, you can design and install it in ways that will regenerate the soil under and around it.

How Do Hedgerows Heal Soil?

The health of any landscape begins with soil and water. We have been mostly taught to think of these two things as collections of inanimate molecules whose actions are completely at the mercy of physics and chemistry. The truth, however, is that living organisms structure and organize the activities of the soil and the movement of water far more than we had previously believed possible. Bacteria and fungi are especially critical components of our soils, while bacteria are prime movers in all parts of the water cycle.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at a living soil. This soil is covered by plants or by their decaying parts, as in a forest blanketed with leaves in autumn. Sun rarely touches this soil directly. The plants create a protective buffer zone that moderates soil temperatures and the evaporation of water. This soil is a great place for bacteria and fungi to live, creatures who live in close association with the plant roots.

Plants and plant roots working in symbiosis with bacteria and fungi are the foundation of a healthy soil. Healthy plants are able to make far more sugars and other carbohydrates through photosynthesis than they need for themselves. The extra goes out through the roots into the soil. These root exudates are food for bacteria and fungi. This exchange begins the dance of community relationships that is commonly called the soil food web, a vast network of exchange for energy, water, nutrients, and information.

Soil with this active exchange network can both store the nutrients needed for plant growth – including very soluble nutrients such as nitrogen – and unlock those nutrients as they are needed. Minerals cycle in such a soil. Nitrogen, calcium, and other nutrients are there when the plants need them – and in forms that are easily digested by the plants.

Fungi are particularly active in producing the complex carbon-based molecules we know as humus and glomalin. These are stable, carbon-rich molecules that assist in the sequestration of atmospheric carbon. They create a crumbly soil that is ready to receive water. A humus-rich soil is porous and can infiltrate water effectively, even in a heavy downpour.

This assists the “small water cycle,” creating a water reserve in the soil that plants will transpire back into the atmosphere over time. This is water that will fall again as rain further inland. In a healthy ecosystem, the cycle of water from ocean to rain and back to ocean is measured in months, years, possibly even decades – not in the hours or days we currently witness as storm events send a churning current of brown, dirt-laden water down our rivers and out to the ocean.

Whenever soils are tilled or left bare, this living soil community is destroyed, along with its nutrient networks and water holding-capacity. A hedgerow is a place of stability and evolution for the soil community. It provides an ongoing safe haven for all the soil’s creatures. When soils nearby are disturbed in ways that set back this soil community, the hedgerow becomes a source of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and other creatures so critical to a healthy soil.

As soil science evolves from a chemical orientation toward d biological one, we are discovering that soil is a living organism, a structured and organized whole whose many living parts form a unity of balanced and dynamic relationships that create vitality for the whole. That whole is not just in the soil, it is the whole landscape and ecosystem, which includes you. Hedgerows are a simple way to design a soil-healing dynamo into your landscape.

What Are Other Benefits Offered By Hedgerows?

The benefits of hedgerows don’t stop with their impacts on soil and water. The many species of plants that can become a hedgerow also offer a multitude of above-ground benefits. They may offer nectar and pollen needed by bees, native pollinators, and other beneficial insects. They may offer seeds and berries that feed birds and wildlife. Their interlaced structure is also a great hiding place for small birds, toads, and other beneficial animals.

When I think of hedgerows, the hawthorn tree quickly comes to mind. This is a thorny, small tree with branches that form thickets perfect for small birds, such as juncos and towhees, to hide in. The flowers are beautiful clusters of white or pink foam, and both they and the later berries are a potent heart medicine. When in bloom, the flowers are often covered in both native bees and honeybees.

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Hawthorn berries in early fall.

Hedgerows may also harbor medicine plants that benefit pets or farm animals. One of our hedgerows contains wormwood, Artemesia absinthium, a natural dewormer for farm animals. We harvest some of the gangly branches on occasion, offering them free-choice to sheep and goats. If needed the animals eat them, if not they are ignored. Artemesia flowers are loved by bees, and the silvery grey leaves are a lovely filler in bouquets, making this plant useful in many ways.

Hedgerows can also be placed to buffer winds, creating microclimates that can further diversify the landscape. They can be used to make life hospitable for tender vegetables or sensitive lemon trees. Animals, including birds and deer, may take advantage of a hedgerow for protection during storms.

Hedgerows are a healing tool, one that offers many benefits to people, animals, plants, soil, and planet.

How Do I Create a Hedgerow?

The diversity of hedgerows is up there with the number of stars in the sky. Where you live and what your goals are will strongly influence what plants go into your hedgerow. How long will your hedgerow be? How wide? How tall will it get? These are all variables determined by your location and needs.

The following are a few simple guidelines to get you started. If you are new to plants and growing things, you will want to consult with someone who has a strong knowledge of plants that do well in your area. However, getting your soil off to a good start is the same no matter where you live, and that’s one of the first steps.

1. Know Your Goals – Do you want to feed birds and bees? Attract butterflies? Grow herbal medicines for your family? Grow some of your own food? Create a fragrance oasis? Promote native plants? Knowing what benefits you want the plants in the hedgerow to provide is a great place to start. You may have several goals. That can work. The hedgerow by my home runs for 100 feet, yet it offers plenty in the way of food and medicine to meet some of my needs as well as that of the birds.

2. Choose a Location –  Hedgerows create borders and boundaries. Is there a place you would like to see screened or enclosed such as a patio or vegetable garden? Hedgerows buffer winds. Is there a prevailing wind that needs moderating? When run along the contour of a landscape, a hedgerow will help to stop water from flowing downhill, giving the water a place to sink in. Is there a place that needs this service in your landscape?

3. Prepare the Soil – Once you have a location selected, you can begin to prepare the soil. I suggest sheet mulching (see below) as an easy and effective way to start – one that mimics Nature’s soil building strategies. It also makes it easy to leave in place any existing trees, shrubs, or other plants that you want to incorporate into the hedgerow.

4. Choose Your Plants – This is the step that you want to take your time with. Once you know your goals you can start to look at lists of plants that can fulfill those goals. For example, if you want to feed birds, check in with local birding groups or county extension agents to find out what plants are best in your area. Diversity helps to build health and resilience in your hedgerow, so aim for a minimum of 8 different species – a mix of shrubs and perennials with small trees as well, if you want more height.

There is much more to be said about choosing plants, placing them, planting and tending them in the first few years as they get established. If you live in Northern California, I can help – or find someone else with good plant knowledge to help you in choosing plants especially if you are new to gardening. Ask lots of questions, and then go for it! Watch your hedgerow grow; see what creatures comes to use it; tweak if necessary; relax and enjoy!

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Rose with wormwood in late summer.

*Sheet Mulching. These are the basics: Knock down any grasses or other tall weeds and cover the area to be planted with a layer of cardboard. Top the cardboard with at least 12 inches of carbon-rich mulch. This could be leaves, straw, wood chips, or anything similar that you have on hand. Pine needles are the one thing I would not recommend using, at least not on their own. Some mixed in with other stuff is fine. Water the mulch as you put it down in layers to kickstart the decomposition process. Microbes will do the rest over time.

This sheet mulch can sit for months while you decide on the plant list and placements. It’s building soil, and all you had to do was gather and put down the materials.

When you are ready to plant, push aside the mulch and cut through the cardboard with your shovel. Dig your hole, plant, and add compost at the top of the newly re-filled hole. Earthworms, which should be living under the cardboard by now, will distribute the compost in perfect amounts right where it is needed in the root zone. Resettle the mulch so that the soil is covered but not the trunk or stems of your plant. Water gently.

Options: When you first start to mulch you can put manure under the cardboard layer, but only if you know the mulch will be sitting for at least 2 or more months before you will plant. The manure layer can help to build a richer soil, but it is too strong to plant directly into before it has had a few months to break down.