Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Planting hedges in the mist

The shape slumped in the doorway was unrecognisable in the early evening gloom. Reversing the land rover onto the drive, I allowed a minor curse to escape me, directing it towards remote sensor for the porch light which since the start of the recent damp weather spell has been working only intermittently. I’d been expecting a delivery but had left instructions for it to be left around the side by the log store, so The Shape by the front door was either what I was hoping for, but in the wrong place (a minor thing), or...something else. It was not something else. The shape in the porch was a large polythene sack containing 50 bare-root yews and an assortment of similarly naked dogwoods. In essence, a nascent wood, in a bag. Just add soil.

The yews I had ordered for a gap-toothed hedge which I’ve been looking forward to rectifying all year, while the majority of the dogwoods, Cornus alba 'Sibirica' AGM, were destined for a particular long border in the same garden, red stems forming a rosy thicket about the large-lobed, rusty winter foliage of Hyndrangea quercifolia. Come spring and summer we can look forward to the leaves of the dogwood – a green of particular freshness and intensity – providing a backdrop for the white pyramid flowers of the hydrangeas. These shrubby cornus species are not grown for their flowers, unlike their more showy cousins (the kousas and the floridas, for example) and, while the flattish florets of creamy white flowers and blue berries are incidental as a garden spectacle, they are welcome all the same as an interesting detail and an additional food resource for birds and insects.

Cornus alba 'Sibirica' in early spring

Frosted leaves of Hydrangea quercifolia

The final occupants of the large plastic sack – a handful of Cornus 'Midwinter Fire' – are to find a home in our own garden where over the years no doubt we will increase their numbers with hardwood cuttings. I remain entirely unapologetic about my love of a bed full of fiery stemmed dogwoods over the winter months; the more I can cram in to the allotted space the more content I feel about the prospect. There are plenty of other views within the humble plot that excel in presenting monochrome vignettes in drabs and browns, and so it’s welcome to have a splash of flame at this end of the year to echo autumn bonfires and the more distant, hot colours of late summer blooms.

Thick mist lay heavily across the wealden landscape the next morning, and persisted for most of the day. Perfect conditions for hedge planting; the ground damp but workable, water hanging thickly in the air all around, like a fine persistent rain, but one in which on closer observation the droplets of water appeared reluctant to obey the laws of gravity, seeming to travel sideways as often as downwards, and apparently even upwards on occasion. This is a garden on a high ridge where often it’s unclear whether a cloud has descended to envelop the hill, or the mist has risen to achieve the same effect but, whatever the cause, I knew there was little need for concern that the young sapling yews would lose moisture through their bare roots while they waited to be lowered into their planting position. In any case, immediately upon removing from the plastic sack, each fresh batch of ten plants was plunged into a large tub of water to help rehydrate them after their journey from the nursery’s fields at the other end of the county.

Bare-root hedging plants are tough as old boots, and native plants such as yew have formed part of our familiar hedgerows for centuries. With relatively small plants such as these (60cm in height), a perfectly acceptable way to plant them is to make a ‘slit’ in the ground with your spade, rocking the handle to enlarge the opening and then, once the spade has been removed, to insinuate the roots of your plant into the hole to the same depth as the plant had been grown in the field (the mark between the aerial and the subterranean parts of the plant is quite apparent once you get your eye in), finally closing up the hole with your booted foot. For several reasons, I don’t use this method, trie, tested and ‘old country’ as it may be. Firstly, actually I find it a bit of a faff. Secondly, I’m not usually planting in an open field, but often in areas where previous plantings have had to be cleared. And thirdly, while I know there will be a pretty good success rate with plants grown in this way, somehow it doesn’t feel like a particularly auspicious beginning for a garden feature you’ll be looking at for decades to come. Planting a long line of hedgerow as a field boundary would be an ideal time to use this slit planting method but, in a garden, I like to be sure that everything I plant gets off to as good a start as possible. I include a couple of soil conditioning products; a handful of bonemeal as a slow release organic fertiliser, and also a sprinkling of myccorhizal fungi – sold under license by the RHS under the brandname ‘Rootgrow’ – over the roots. This fungi forms a symbiotic relationship with the plants via its roots, exchanging nutrients taken up from the soil through the fungus’s wide network of hyphae with sugars synthesised in the plant. My usual method is to sprinkle a small amount over the roots with the plant in its final position before backfilling the planting hole, although I noticed in this pack that the manufacturer is now including a sachet of a wallpaper paste like substance (actually, I think it might be wallpaper paste, hopefully without the anti fungal additive) which can be mixed with the Rootgrow crystals in a bucket to form a dip for the roots.

Yews planted and trenches backfilled, I mulch with well-rotted manure – compost would do if it’s not too weedy, otherwise it largely defeats the object, which is to supress competition from weeds while the new hedge is getting established); likewise woodchip would be fine if, again, well rotted, as fresh organic matter will rob the establishing hedge of nitrogen. There is just time to plant the cornus at the top of the garden, as the sun begins to set and the mist starts to thicken, visible across the valley like a white, fluffy sea surrounding islands of bare trees.

And then all of a sudden the mist is gone, and golden sunshine glints and sparkles from a million tiny lenses on dew laden grass and leaves. For a moment, it is breathtaking, and I remind myself; this is my office. What a lucky so and so.