Planting a hedge this autumn? You should be because the hedge planting season generally starts in November as plants go into dormancy. If so, now is the time to think about ground preparation. All hedge plants do better if there has been some element of preparation before planting although some prefer it 'rougher' than others.
This article deals with the preparation needed before you plant a mixed native hedge.
These are the hedges of the English countryside - thorn based, often stockproof and generally made up of species including the likes of hawthorn, hazel, field maple, blackthorn and wild roses. If you are buying plants you can find suitable mixes online using a search phrase such as 'country hedging plants'
Preparation here is all about weed control. Country hedging plants as a rule like to be planted in firm, untilled soil. They are native to the UK and grow in a wide range of soil types - generally quite poor. As a rule, therefore unless your soil is appalling, it is better not to improve it. When your hedge is in, the plants will put their roots out far and wide in search of food and moisture which ensures the hedge will survive drought (should we ever get another one) and is well anchored against gales, cattle, trespassers and so forth.
Weeds on the other hand are every hedge plant's enemy. They smother your plants and, because they tend to have shallow roots, they steal water from the hedge. A carpet of weeds can stop all but the heaviest rain wetting the soil more than 5cms down - the weeds can look green and lush while your hedging is dying of thirst.
Prevention is better (and much easier) than cure here. Mark out the area to be planted with string and bamboo canes so you can see what you are doing. Whether you are planting in one row or two, mark a strip about 90 cms wide. If you are happy using chemicals, the months of August, September and the first half of October are optimal for killing weeds using a systemic weedkiller (any one containing Glyphosate) will do. Mix according to the instructions and apply by sprayer or watering can on a dry still day. The weeds will start to yellow after 2-3 weeks. Any that are still green after 4 weeks should be given a second dose - this will get rid of pernicious monsters like bindweed.
If you do not like chemicals, then buy weed control fabric in 1 metre widths (it tends to come in rolls of 25, 50 and 100 metres). Cut the weeds as close to the ground as you can and lay the fabric over the marked strip. Secure the corners with stones. Standing on the fabric, and using a spade with the blade parallel to and about 3-4cms in from the edge of the fabric, drive the fabric into the ground until the edge is hidden by soil. Do this all the way round until all edges are completely tucked in. It will stay like this for 3-4 years before it begins to break down. It allows moisture through, but excludes light and so kills everything green underneath. In the next article you will learn how to plant your hedge through slits in the fabric in the winter.
Finally, if you do not like plastics either (the fabric is polypropylene), you can use organic materials such as carpet underlay, broken down cardboard boxes. I have seen people recycling estate agent's For Sale signs.... You can even use grass clippings in a blanket about 7-8 cms thick. A few pernicious weeds will come through, but you can hand weed those out. Make sure the grass does not blow away though.
Done now, the smothering techniques will have killed all your weeds by the time you get to plant your hedge from November onwards.
Anna Stenning is an expert on hedging having researched this extensively for her garden.