The spindle tree (Euonymus europeaus) has always made me smile. It is a common British hedgerow plant, and yet in late autumn, it transforms into an exotic beauty, festooned with vibrant neon orange and fuchsia pink fruits. That was the case until I spent a day learning how to cut and lay hedges in the traditional Devon style, with Martin Turner, Chairman of the Blackdown Hills Hedge Association. Now, I view every spindle with cautious respect.
According to Martin, “Spindle is tricky”; the wood is brittle and inclined to split badly in the final stages of cutting, killing the tree, and denting your new-found confidence with a billhook, the curved cutting tool hedgers rely on.
On a sunny October day, at the start of the laying season, I met Martin at a typical Devon hedge; planted on a bank. His association runs training days for the enthusiastic public throughout winter. This avoids disturbing nesting birds, but also because deciduous trees and shrubs are dormant, you are less likely to cause critical damage.
“Left to it own devices a hedge will become a row of trees,” says Martin. “To keep a hedge a hedge, you need to cut it.” The most cost-effective way for farmers to do this now is mechanically. But with flailing you lose the sloes, hazelnuts, rosehips, elderberries and beech nuts that sustain birds, mice, voles, hedgehogs and shrews through the winter months. A good, dense hedge also attracts nesting birds.
The one-day course is very hands-on, but not too physically demanding for the average gardener. Martin first talked me though the tools of his trade. Usually all you need is a billhook and a pruning saw. Loppers and an axe might come in handy, but we didn’t use them. The billhook is a terrifying tool, perfect for this work, but the stuff of horror movies, and no two are the same. In he past, village blacksmiths would have made tools to specific local hedging requirements.
Before making any cuts, Martin described how to ‘read’ a hedge. He looked for the slope of the hedge, “You always lay uphill for water runoff and so the sap rises, and if there is no slope, you lay towards the rising sun”. He told me that on an exposed, flat site, you lay with the prevailing wind, to prevent it lifting and damaging the finished hedge.
The density and pattern of the planting is also critical. It is common in Somerset and Devon, for instance, to have two distinct lines of planting on top of a bank, and in this case you lay two hedges, one on either side. Styles have distinct regional variation, and, according to Martin, an expert can tell where he is in the UK just by looking at the hedges.
Next, we set to work with the billhook, scraping and cutting out all the nettles, brambles and rubbish that had accumulated at the base. Then we were ready to make our first cut, or ‘pleach’. Martin taught me how to take hold of the tree with my left hand, holding the billhook in my right hand. I shook the tree to ensure it was free from restriction and made a sharply angled cut on the side of the trunk opposite to the way I was laying. I chopped down until I felt the tree start to ‘give’ in my left hand (usually cut 2/3, leave 1/3). Then I supported it as I lay it down along the hedge, at the same time, gently levering the pleach open.
“You will feel the tree telling you when it is ready to go,” advised Martin. After this, he demonstrated how to saw off the heel of the cut to make a flat surface, which is less likely to trap water and promote rot and infection.
Fresh shoots will sprout from the plant where it has been cut, and from nodes on the trunk and grow up through the tightly compacted old stems, creating a dense, living barrier. In two or three years, you can start pruning or cutting the hedge mechanically. A happy by-product of regenerating old hedges is that, in spring you will have a surprise crop of bulbs. Primula vulgaris and naturalised Galanthus, which lie dormant for decades, burst into growth given some light and space, as will bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta). By disturbing the seedbank in the soil you also encourage the germination of wildflowers.
On a one-day course with close supervision you will be ‘pleaching’ many times, and I needed the help. It is a nerve-wracking process. The cuts I made to the saplings and trees were technically difficult and easy to get wrong. If the stem splits, the plant won’t lay and the tree will probably die.
Not only is the angle and depth of the cut different with every sapling or tree, but the species also behave differently. As the day progressed I was gradually able to feel those differences. The alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus) was easy to cut but the spindle (Euonymus europeaus) felt brittle and quick to split. Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) was hard and difficult to cut, but the goat willow (Salix caprea) was soft and buttery.
To secure the hedge, Devon hedgers cut and shape branches from hazel, hammering them into the top of the bank at differing intervals to pin the cut-and-laid material down. Other styles use different ‘crooks’; this type blended beautifully into the hedge.
Many trees and shrubs will withstand this treatment and traditional hedgerows contain a cross-section of native species. If you were planning a hedge to cut and lay in the future, you would be wise to mimic the native selection in the immediate environment. Like all plants, these hedges need light and water but some need a little more thought; planting beech (Fagus sylvatica) for example, on top of a bank may not work well because beech suffers badly from lack of water, and the bank is a drier environment.
Cutting and laying has always been a functional occupation, designed to stock-proof fields. The decline in its use coincides with the availability of wire fencing and flailing machines, but organisations like the Blackdown Hills Hedge Association, and the National Hedgelaying Society, are ensuring that the skills aren’t forgotten. For modern farmers, it is often not a cost-effective way of managing hedges, flailing is cheaper. (Some new legislation and funding planned for 2016 may change this balance back into the favour of cut and lay.)
For gardeners and horticulturalists, this rural skill has had no relevance. But that is changing, and it has a lot to attract the green-fingered. You get to work with plants outdoors in a season when much of the garden needs less attention. It requires some knowledge of the shrubs and trees you are using, and the result is both attractive and encourages wildlife.
Cut and lay is also the only way to regenerate a neglected hedge that has become ‘leggy’, thin and straggly; pruning the tops and branches only promotes new growth at that height, but the pleach cut allows the plant to regenerate from the base. You can customise your hedge, with your choice of plants, but also by breaking up a solid line of hedge with occasional specimen trees. Martin believes that, “You can cut and lay just about anything”, conifers being the only notable exception.
So next time you are planning a garden hedge as a windbreak, or a boundary marker, or if you simply want to learn more about hedgerows, consider something different, and sign up to one of the courses near you.
As published in Country Gardener.