Thursday, 14 August 2014

Following my nose

A fragrant day today, ending with perhaps the most olfactorily pleasing compost heap I’ve encountered for some time, piled high with cuttings of lavender and spearmint (Mentha spicata) – quite invigorating, as was the thunderstorm that arrived just as I was finishing up. But the day began twenty foot up a ladder, nose pressed into the foliage of a tall hedge of leyland cypress, deeply inhaling the luxuriant scent of the resin which I will shortly need to go and clean from the blades of my tools. Another smell from childhood, this time one I’ve always loved, ever since my old Da planted a leylandii hedge in the front garden of our north London terrace house. My parents moved from that house a decade ago, but thirty years on that hedge is looking better than ever, which just goes to show. Leylandii has a rotten reputation, but it makes a stormingly good hedge – you just need to remember to cut it, preferably twice a year. And that’s all you have to do – I’m not sure what the fuss is about to be honest. True, many neighbourly disputes have arisen over unruly hedges grown enormous (the leyland cypress, Cupressus x leylandii can grow to over 20 metres tall if left untrimmed), but they just need a little care. A hedge is not a fence, you don’t erect it and then ignore it completely. It is collection of trees, living entities, and as such requires some care. Not a lot – just a spot of periodic trimming. Your toenails would grow pretty out of control if you left neglected to clip them for five years.

‘Oh, but leylandii’s so commonplace’, my lecturer would boom across the labs when doing plant idents. ‘If you must have a coniferous hedge, choose something else. Why not...Thuja?’ Why not indeed? Thuja plicata (Western Red Cedar if you’re buying a greenhouse or a wardrobe made of the stuff) is another cracking plant, also well suited to hedging. Except it’s twice as expensive, establishes less quickly, and from across the garden I’m not sure you’d really notice the difference in something that’s essentially going to be used as a backdrop. Its crushed foliage smells of pear drops, which may or may not be an advantage over leylandii, according to your taste. But then few people buy this kind of hedge for the purpose of sniffing it.*

All this being said, I don’t have a leylandii hedge in my own garden – we planted a strip of mixed native hedging, and use a block of yew (also native) to partition the garden (not that everything in the garden has to be native – it isn’t – I just liked the idea of tying the garden to the surrounding countryside). Which is all very well, and we’re quite pleased with how things are working, hedge-wise. It just doesn’t smell as good.

*If you are into hedge sniffing, then may I recommend Escallonia? Clip this and you’ll be engulfed in a cloud of spiced orange fumes. Just add red wine, and heat gently. Only put the hedge clippers away first.