Monthly musings: Creative gap filling
Given the chance, I’d always choose a hedge over fencing; it’s the ideal garden boundary – green, wildlife-friendly and self-renewing – up to a point. Hedges can, though, develop unsightly gaps and bald bits. Sometimes the odd plant dies out, or a front garden hedge loses an encounter with an errant vehicle (an increasing problem on roads with fast bends). Sometimes the entire bottom of the hedge goes bald due to drought, shade from adjacent shrubs, or when the hedge hasn’t been kept trimmed, so the base is in permanent shade from a shaggy top. But once the damage is done, you can often remedy the situation with a spot of first aid.
Most people, faced with a single hedge-plant that dies, take it out and replace it with a new one of the same type, but it’s not as successful as you’d think. Putting a young, twelve-inch privet, conifer (or whatever) into a gap in a six-foot-high hedge means the newcomer has a real fight on its hands. The battle for light, water and nutrients amid its well-established bigger brothers, means it won’t always win. With a narrow gap, a far quicker solution is to cheat; remove the dead plant, push in a few rustic poles and weave sideshoots, from neighbouring plants, through until till they meet in the middle. Another alternative is to remove the dead plant and put in a tree instead, so it grows up above the hedge-line. It can become quite a feature.
If you have a geriatric hawthorn hedge that looks very sparse and spindly with gaping holes everywhere, you could try something more creative. Cut the lot back to a suitable size, give it a billowy wind-sculpted shape. Then, bolster any gaps with wire netting and allow self-sown wild ivies (which are usually present in neglected old hedges) to scramble over the remaining structure of bare branches. Within a few years, they’ll completely cover the shape and smother the original hedge.
Wild ivy soon reaches its mature stage when growth slows down dramatically so only minor pruning is needed. As a bonus, it also produces flowers and berries, which are brilliant for attracting birds, and it looks highly architectural. If there isn’t enough ivy growing in just the right places, search the garden for self-sown seedlings and transplant them – or simply plant cultivated ivy for a striking variegated look.
Another option, for a hedge with gaps along the bottom, is to dig a trench a foot or so in front of it, fill this with compost, and plant a row of contrasting shrubs that tolerate a bit of dry shade – evergreens such as euonymus or berberis for instance. Kept clipped at about half the height of the main hedge, this produces a fashionable ‘stepped’ two-tier hedge. Or, if there isn’t enough room, plant periwinkles to mask the bare stems. Another option is to clean up the base of the balding hedge, removing dead twigs and bare bits, then put in a row of low rustic hurdles – the sort sometimes sold for edging flower beds.
You can be quite inventive, but whatever you do, it’s going to be cheaper, quicker and easier than ripping everything out and replacing the entire hedge, so it’s well worth a thought.