In the world of the native British hedge, there will always be three trees that lead the field; Yew, Hawthorn and Beech. They all have great merit as hedge plants but it is beech that is ideal for any of the main purposes of a hedge, whether it's being kept clipped neatly at the front of your house, enclosing fields and livestock or being allowed to grow a little wild at the bottom of the garden. Far be it from me to say that beech also has the best foliage - but it does. The evenly shaped leaves are gently crinkled and fine without being delicate. In spring they emerge with a radiant green that deepen as the summer rolls on, finally putting on a golden brown show in autumn. But they aren't finished yet! On a clipped hedge, the leaves stay on the branches until they are nudged off by the following year's crop, maintaining a solid band of colour all winter. A beech hedge moving in the wind is truly vibrant and matches its coat to the seasons - a hard act to follow. That has to be at least one reason to love it already, but here are seven more:
Which size suits you? Beech is a big tree. The sky is almost the limit for the height of your hedge and if you don't mind getting a cherry-picking crane to do your trimming, you can easily hide your house with a barrier of leaves and branches thick enough to lose the kids in. On the other hand, you can keep a happy hedge as low as a metre if you want to.
Soil Types: Beech is one of our oldest native trees and has successfully spread over all of Britain's diverse geology and its soils. Whether you have low or high pH in your area, chalk or shallow soil, the only thing it needs is good drainage. While a rich, fertile soil will certainly make a it grow faster, beech will make do with fairly poor soil and loves heavy clay, as long as it is on a hill or ridge that drains well.
Value of a Hedge to your Property: I know this isn't a cheerful subject at the moment, but I have some good news. Planting a hedge is far cheaper than putting up a fence and it will last much longer than a wooden one. Whereas a fence can be torn to shreds by a gale (or by children climbing on it, which can amount to the same thing) and need costly repairing; a beech hedge is unfazed by hazardous weather conditions and could grow back even if a truck crashed into it. But those tidy savings are likely to be much smaller than the value that a good looking hedge can add to your house by enhancing the view and making the garden feel more secluded.
Exposed Sites: Even if you are planting a hedge on the crest of hill in an exposed piece of land, you can still rely on beech to stay healthy, stand upright and grow evenly (however much it gets blasted by cold winds).
Beech Hedges are Stockproof: Yew is no good for planting next to livestock and hawthorn is deciduous, so it can't give the animals much shelter in the winter (or save you from looking at a field of pigs if you don't want to). Beech can be laid so that it grows densely enough to keep even goats in their place - good to know, especially if the goats are yours and you like to stay popular with your neighbours.
Feed the Creatures: If the hedge gets a bit overgrown, older branches will produce beechnuts that feed all sorts of rodents, including the seriously endangered dormouse. With the possible exception of the dormouse, rodents generally aren't very popular with most people and definitely not on the list for getting a free lunch. Well, you may be glad to know that mice, rats and squirrels are the main sources of food for our birds of prey. Who gets tired of watching a kestrel prowl over the fields?
Restorative Pruning: Whether you inherited an overgrown hedge from a previous owner or neglected your own, it is reassuring to know that you can hack a beech hedge back without mercy (if not without a bit of care and good quality tools!). Really severe jobs are best done over two years, but you can certainly remove half the height of the hedge in one go if you need to.
Now, it is true that there are several other trees that can make a lovely hedge that also has most of those qualities. Beech's claim over them is more than its leaves and the year round interest that they provide, however. It is one of our oldest native trees and wherever you plant it, it can't help but look as though it is in the right place. It could even be said that the landscape has grown up around beech; it has been here for so long. It is the classic British hedge plant for any occasion, whether you want it to add some privacy to the front room of a town house, create a castle wall against wind and noise or just to stop the cows wandering off and the goats breaking in. If you are planting a new hedge, barerooted plants are strong, cheap and can be planted between November and March.
Anna Stenning is an expert on planting a beech hedge and see this as beneficial for many reasons.