At this time of year, we find a ‘first flower’ of the season almost every day. Last week, a guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus) I had been watching closely in one of the hedges came into flower (nearly a month earlier than last year) and on the bank below it a columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) came into flower joining greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) wood millet (Milium effusum) and red campion (Silene dioica).
Just a couple of months ago when these plants were not even in bud we were completing our winter coppicing and hedge-laying programme. Coppicing continues on rotation. Some of the coppiced hazel is used for stakes and binders for hedges as illustrated below.
Laid hedges have featured here since the garden was created 22 years ago. The originally-planted hedges have been re-laid, with hedge-laying demonstrated by woodland conservationist and hedge-layer, Rob Graham, during special Museum events celebrating the biodiversity of hedgerows.
Hedge-laying is one of the best ways to restore a hedge and encourage new growth and in February this year, Daniel, wildlife gardener/ecologist with us during 2015, returned and deftly transformed a perimeter hedge from a spindly row of hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), field maple (Acer campestre), hazel (Corylus avellana) and holly (Ilex aquifolium) into an attractive, stock-proof barrier.
The stems (known as pleachers) are cut near the base of the plant, as shown below, and bent over at an angle of approximately 30o . From this cut the plant soon develops new shoots that quickly grow (especially in the case of hawthorn or quick as it is sometimes called) – helping to make the hedge thicker.
Stakes are placed half a metre apart along the hedge line, between the hedging plants,
The long binders are then woven through the stakes
Finally the stakes are trimmed neatly to the same height. The stakes and binders were sourced from hazel coppiced in the garden’s woodland areas.
There are around thirty methods of hedge-laying in the country, each developed according to local farming needs, climate and species available. For example, sheep farming would require a dense network of branches at the base of the hedge to prevent sheep escaping. Our new hedge will be put to test when the sheep return in August this year.
In addition to providing a sturdy and prickly barrier, hedges are an important contribution to the garden’s mosaic of habitats providing interest to our visitors by illustrating those found in the wider landscape and showing what is possible in urban areas. The Wildlife Garden’s hedges are included on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s list of flagship species and sites in their local Biodiversity Action Plan.
The dense bushy growth promoted by hedge-laying provides wildlife with good shelter and protective corridors connecting the different habitats. Many animals benefit including small mammals, amphibians and birds. At this time of year, blackbirds in particular favour hedges as nest sites.
And when not nesting, foraging or roosting our garden birds are singing loudly from their tree song posts, so loudly in fact that a visitor last week asked where the loud speakers were located.
Apart from hawthorn, field maple, hazel and holly, the mix of shrubs and climbers throughout the garden’s hedges include blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), guelder-rose, dog rose (Rosa canina), sweet briar (Rosa rubiginosa), crab apple (Malus sylvestris), spindle (Euonymus europaeus), wild privet (Ligustrum vulgare), elder (Sambucus nigra), honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), hops (Humulus lupulus), traveller’s-joy (Clematis vitalba) and bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.)
Together, hedgerow species also provide foliage and food for a range of invertebrates and their larvae – the evidence is all around us! Here are some of the species seen in the past week:
Later in the year damselflies and dragonflies may be seen patrolling the length of hedges hunting their prey of midges and other small flies. We spotted our first red damselfly of the year on the 11 April – over two weeks earlier than 2016.
Returning to our hedge banks, several first flowers have appeared since the weekend including bugle (Ajuga reptans), wood sedge (Carex sylvatica) and wood avens (Geum urbanum), all shade-loving woodland plants
In a few weeks time, south-facing hedge banks will include meadow plants such as meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris) and red clover (Trifolium pratense). Come and see for yourself. The Wildlife Garden is open daily.