The practice of growing hedgerows stems from at least the Medieval times of England and Ireland. Hedgerows can increase the beauty, productivity, and biodiversity of a property. Discover 10 reasons why this age-old strategy is used on permaculture homesteads and how it can benefit your residential property.
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Rose Hips, photo by Nayuki via Flickr
Ancient Hedge Laying
The ancient hedgerows of the English and Irish countrysides were used as property boundaries, defense barriers, and livestock paddock dividers. Traditional hedge laying is a serious skill, one that has been largely lost over time. These old hedgerows were impenetrable and required a lot of maintenance. After World War II, skilled laborers were in short supply, and hedgerows largely became unruly. Lack of labor coupled with the industrial farming boom, landholders sought to eek out every inch of production, and hedgerows began to disappear. Check out these pictures to marvel at the ancient works of art.
A few discoveries were made as the hedgerows vanished: There was more soil erosion, more pests, more wind, more dust, and far less biodiversity. In areas without heavy tree cover, hedgerows had become essential wildlife corridors. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds,
Hedges may support up to 80% of our woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies. The ditches and banks associated with hedgerows provide habitat for frogs, toads, newts and reptiles.”
Since the 1930s, there has been some interest in the U.S. due to assistance from the USDA shelterbelt and Agroforestry programs, but hedgerows haven’t really taken hold as a standard practice. The farm field hedgerows that were planted in the first 20 years of the program have been disappearing for the same reasons as their counterparts in England and Ireland, with similar decreases in wildlife diversity.
This page includes a more detailed history of hedgerows.
Photo Credit: drinks machine Flickr
The American Hedge vs. Hedgerow
A hedge is a closely planted row of shrubs made up of a single-species. It is commonly used along a fence line, property line, or along the foundation of a house. There isn’t much imagination or creativity that goes into creating a hedge, because it is often made up of a single evergreen species such as arborvitae or yew.
On the other hand, a hedgerow is a narrow strip of mixed plantings. Because of the nature of a mixed planting, it offers more beauty, more diversity, and more productivity.
The Residential Hedgerow
Suburbanites (especially) are always looking for creative ways to mark off the boundaries of their properties. That’s because it’s rare for side-by-side neighbors to share the same philosophies on pets, children, privacy, lawn care, and property use. Hedgerows are an exceptional way to mark these boundaries and create privacy.
Managing our edges is an important first step in ecological property design, according to Geoff Lawton, Australian permaculturist. By defining our edges, we can better control what comes on our property, such as weeds, pests, wind, aerial chemicals, or water.
Below, I share 10 reasons to plant a hedgerow on your residential property, and be sure to check out how to establish a hedgerow.
10 Reasons to Plant a Hedgerow
Hedgerows can be an aesthetically-pleasing addition to the landscape. With a diversity of flowering and fruiting plants, what’s not to love?
Photo Credit: hardworkinghippy Flickr
2: Water Conservation
Hedgerows conserve water by blocking the drying summer winds that accelerate evaporation. (Did you know that more moisture is lost through evaporation on a cloudy, windy day than on a still, hot, and sunny day? Wind is the game changer.)
Hedgerow trees and shrubs will catch and store water in their root systems, especially if they are planted on contour, which is one of the reasons why crops near hedgerows tend to be greener.
This means that hedgerows are a great way to reduce your irrigation time in the garden.
3: Privacy Screen
Though it takes 4-8 years for hedgerows to become established, if designed properly for the site, they will eventually fill in the space and provide a nice privacy screen. There’s something different about being enclosed by a living fence of plants and trees. In my opinion, it’s certainly more interesting to look at than a wooden privacy fence that could make you feel boxed in.
4: Food Production
Hedgerows can provide food for humans. A food-producing hedge is sometimes referred to as a fedge.
A hedge mimics the diversity usually found at a forest’s edge, which is the most productive landscape for human-edible species. At the edge, we’ll find a diversity of vegetation layers that take advantage of the convergence of prairie and forest.
We can design our hedgerow to be a fedge, chock full of perennial harvests for humans.
Would you like to learn more about using perennial food crops to improve the biodiversity of your garden and increase yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
5. Noise Reduction
Hedgerows can help buffer sound such as a nearby highway. For this purpose, a hedgerow should be planted as close to the source of noise as possible. A dense hedgerow of trees and shrubs can help, but be aware the hedgerow will be at its most useful for this purpose when the trees and shrubs have reached their fullest size.
Photo Credit: jojo 77 Flickr
Strong wind disturbs pollination efforts and stresses plants, thereby reducing crop yields. In windy areas, plants will put more energy into growing strong stalks and branches, and will have less energy to devote to flower or fruit production.
When a hedgerow is planted perpendicular to the prevailing winds, it can reduce wind speeds by up to 75% at distances up to ten times the height of the hedgerow on flat land, according to Jude Hobbs, an agroecologist, permaculturist, and hedgerow specialist. (So if the hedgerow is ten feet tall, wind speed will be reduced for a distance of up to 100 feet).
Buffering the wind allows you to create a calm inner environment that is comfortable for entertaining, sitting, or growing healthy crops. It can even reduce heating costs by up to 40%.
Place trees and bushes with fragrant flowers in the hedgerow, and you can help mask foul odors wafting in from nearby industry or livestock operations.
In flat land areas where wind can reach higher speeds, a windbreak can serve as a barrier to filter dust particles from the air and chemical drift.
A windbreak hedgerow can also prevent snow drifts, and with proper placement, could reduce snow shoveling time on your driveway after winter storms.
7: Soil Stabilization
Hedgerows are densely planted with a mixed species of plants that have various types of roots, all working together to stabilize the different levels of the soil. Water will be slowed down as it runs through the hedgerow, which will help to reduce soil erosion (eroded topsoil is America’s #1 export!).
8: Wildlife Corridor
Hedgerows are linear nature preserves, providing much needed nesting, forage, and shelter for mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Hedgerows restore habitat that is often missing in suburban subdivisions where land has been stripped of most of its trees, shrubs, and natural bodies of water for development.
One of the most common habitats to disappear is that of the edge, where the forest meets prairie, because wild edges tend to be weedy and unruly, which is often not considered aesthetically pleasing. At the edge of two ecosystems, however, is where you’ll find the most diversity of plants and animals, which is why hedgerows are so essential.
Hedgerows mimic edge habitat but can be designed to pass muster for residential landscape aesthetics.
While your hedgerows are getting established, you might consider adding birdhouses, bird feeders, and bird baths to begin attracting new residents.
Photo Credit: hardworkinghippy Flickr
9: Beneficial Insects & Pollinators
Hedgerows can support a diversity of insect species. If you’d like to see more beneficial insects patrolling your garden or more pollinators coming in for a visit, a hedgerow can do more than a wildflower planting all by itself.
That’s because mixed hedgerows consist of trees, shrubs, and ground covers in addition to herbs and wildflowers, all of which flower and fruit at different times and provide a variety of options for pollen, nectar, food, and shelter. More leaf litter will increase habitat for important insects, and more insects may increase the bird and bat populations. Butterflies will also be attracted to hedgerows for protection.
If increasing biodiversity is important to you, a hedgerow will catapult your efforts.
10: Riparian Zone Buffer
Riparian zones are the land areas along bodies of freshwater such as creeks, ponds, lakes, and rivers. They include the floodplain zones as well as the sloped banks of the waterway.
Riparian zones are home to many (endangered) species of wildlife and are also essential for filtering out soil particles, organic matter, agricultural chemicals, and other manmade pollutants before rainwater collects in these bodies of freshwater.
Unfortunately, modern agricultural and development policies often insist on stripping riparian zones of useful species for short-term monetary gain. This practice has contributed to the large dead zone we now have in the Gulf of Mexico due to agricultural and industrial runoff.
If you live on the edge of a body of water, even a small creek or stream, a hedgerow of riparian-appropriate species could positively impact the health of the water as well as increase wildlife habitat.
Photo Credit: Snohomish Conservation District Flickr
Hedgerows are a boon for residential homesteads where privacy, healthy gardens, beauty, and biodiversity merge. Hedgerows help manage the edges of your property to control weeds, pollution, erosion, and wind.
Now you’re ready to learn how to plant a hedgerow!
Get ideas from the following books:
- Restoration Agriculture: Real World Permaculture for Farmers
- Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 2: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture
- The Hedgerow Cookbook
- The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People
Need more ideas for growing a permaculture garden?
- 6 Maps for the Permaculture Farm Design
- How to Construct a Swale in the Residential Landscape
- Does Your Permaculture Garden Need Daffodils?
Have you planted a hedgerow? What plants did you include?