Why planting hedges (not building fences) is the key to keeping your garden safe in stormy weather 

As fence-flattening storms batter us, it’s time to choose a more natural garden divider, says Helen Yemm

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The 'dragon' hedges of Chris Gyselen, Belgium
The 'dragon' hornbeam hedge of Chris Gyselen, Belgium Credit: Marianne Majerus Garden Images

It wasn’t just a case of flying trampolines, dislocated greenhouses and poly­tunnels ripped to ribbons. In her wake, Ciara left many garden fences either precariously semi-detached or worse, flattened, burying the very borders they were built to protect. From my Thorny Problems inbox, I know the maintenance of fences is the most loathed of garden jobs (together with the management of overbearing conifers, that other late 20th century garden hangover).

Longer-lasting feather-edge fences, more expensive than relatively flimsy larch-lap panels, may have fared better. Luckiest were probably the owners of newer wooden fences with open slats, vertical or horizontal, designed to filter the wind; the best of these even lend a certain modern chic. More practical boundaries for small gardens, surely these must soon replace “solid” fences as storms become more frequent.

And, I fervently hope, we can start to plant more hedges.

In my own garden, in an exposed corner plot, I am eternally grateful to have inherited wind-filtering boundary hedges: a jumble of mature evergreen, deciduous and semi-evergreen species that I maintain (with a certain amount of bi-annual dread and effort) at more than 2m high. Occasionally almost smart but most often slightly shaggy, they provide a green, boundary-fudging backdrop for floral fireworks while offering wind protection, privacy, and shelter and food for wildlife.

Crisply trimmed hedges divide the garden and provide wind protection Credit: Marianne Majerus Garden Images

I have always been fascinated by the national and regional diversity of hedges, governed not just by climate and soil but by history and geography and, it would seem, by the natures of those who tend them. On my Boxwood garden tours, I indulge my tendency to form extravagant generalisations based on passing observations, mostly from an elevated position at the front of the bus, while those behind me snooze.

Cross the Channel, I tell anyone who will listen, and you will find that the northern French, with no great historic tradition of blowsy borders a l’anglaise, have cracked the front garden hedge, albeit in a rather, shall we say, bland way. They do it, not with walls or wooden fencing but with chain-link fence and clipped chubby, shrubby hedges, frequently of shiny laurel. The maintenance-free chain-link adds to security and is soon swallowed by the hedge. Et voila.

As soon as you get into Belgium, however, things take a very different turn. Belgians have a historic love of dark, clipped evergreens. Village and suburban hedges are taller, slimmer and denser than in France, acting as breaks against prevailing winds that buffet and bowl across the flat terrain. As in Britain, conifers are everywhere, along with escallonia, evergreen berberis and elaeagnus, but all are tightly clipped, somehow giving them enough “backbone” to grow tall and slim and still stay upright.

While elegant topiary is still their “thing”, several Belgian gardens I’ve visited also sport huge hedges reinforced with invisible wires. In one, the view of a neighbouring house was almost hidden (as was a composting area) by an extraordinarily lofty, 5m-high chain-link fence covered in impeccable ivy that was clipped twice a year.

The 1.4-hectare garden of Belgian designer Chris Ghyselen is on a Boxwood tour of Flanders in autumn. Chris is 16 miles inland but the site is subject to blistering winter south-westerlies. He displays a more naturalistic version of “the Flemish style”, as he puts it, but he has heavy, wet clay soil in which neither beech nor evergreens such as yew thrive, whereas hornbeam does.

The garden is divided by hedges, some tall, some squat, creating compartments to explore, each with a different season. The most eye-catching are a matching pair of incredibly slim hedges that tower above the rest – a group of Chinese visitors told Chris they looked like dragons and indeed they do, undulating, their high points several metres tall, behind Chris’s magnificent double borders.

They were planted 20 years ago as a single row of plants, 30cm apart, each one staked and the rows strengthened by horizontal wires. Chris cut them into shape almost from the start to encourage the stocky, low growth that supports their loftiness. They are cut twice, in June and September.

I asked Chris how and why, using similar plants to us, Belgian gardeners manage to achieve something so different. He puts it down to “history and necessity – and the fact that Belgians are intrinsically neat and tidy people”.

I wondered if he was trying to tell me something.

  • For more information on Boxwood’s Belgian gardens tour, call 01341 429 288 or email [email protected].

 

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