Hedging our bets

When you live in a small space, one method of getting the biggest bang for your buck is to make sure everything serves more than one purpose. Combining that guiding principle with an ancient agrarian practice is even more satisfying. Which brings me to today’s topic – Hedgerows!
According to U. C. Master Gardener, Nancy Wilson: “A hedgerow is a line or grouping of trees, shrubs, perennials, herbs, annuals, grasses and vines planted along fence lines, property lines or water areas. Using a diversity of plant materials lures insects, which in turn bring beneficial predators such as other insects, birds, toads, frogs and lizards.

A poster of this beautiful NW hedgerow is available from Good Nature Publishing as well as other wonderful and informative nature-based art. The Seattle Times says: “To visually entice gardeners and farmers to consider hedgerows, King Conservation District recently commissioned a poster-sized field guide from local Good Nature Publishing Co. To capture the essence of hedgerows, Montreal artist Suzanne Duranceau shot six rolls of film at Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island and Tolt-McDonald Park near Carnation. Her composite painting is a lovely hybrid of locations featuring more than 25 species of native flora and fauna found in or near Puget Sound hedgerows. With deer and ladybugs, cattails and wild roses, the poster illustrates a hedgerow separating farmland from wetland.” The rest of the article has a lot more about creating urban hedgerows, especially in the PNW.

We’ve been intermittently working on hedgerows and/or habitat areas here at Seven Trees for the past few years. One year we planted shore pines, red-twig dogwoods and rugosa roses. The next year we added blueberries under the front fir grove, another rugosa, a climbing rose and 3 thornless blackberries (from the neighbor) along one fenceline. We also started adding native plants to our “mitigation zone” under the back fir grove, an area that had been abused by previous occupants parking cars there. Those plants include vine maples (one of my all time favorite natives), sword ferns, evergreen huckleberries, kinnikinik. Non-native additions are wintergreen, and assorted herbs (just to see if they’ll like it there) like sage, calendula, moonflower, thyme, oregano & mugwort. And we also were joined by some bird-donated red elderberries. Speaking of birds, Bosky Dell Natives has an incredible page on which native plants attract what wildlife.

Native plant species often require less care once they are established, but food-producing plants can often be integrated in a hedgerow just as easily. The hedge we are working on at the end of our pasture includes Pacific crabapple, which is loved by birds, but also makes a tasty jelly and the juice can add a nice zip to cider. We also have mountain ash, with it’s bright orange berries. A little less tasty to humans, but still edible, and another avian favorite. We have a few red alders which add nitrogen to the soil and can even provide firewood someday. There are little wild alders that sprouted in the herb bed and got moved to the corner, near the incense cedar we got for free at the co-op on Arbor Day. We’re hoping they will break the flow of the southern monsoon winds, but are still far enough from any buildings to be safe if they blow over.

From a very informative article by Macphail Woods Nursery on Prince Edward Island: “Hedgerows, also called windbreaks or shelterbelts, once divided Island farms into a pattern of small fields. They provided shelter for livestock, protected houses and barns from winter winds and helped cool the buildings in the summer. The micro-climate in the fields was improved as the trees provided wind protection for the crops; the soil held heat and moisture and wind erosion was minimal. As farm mechanization increased the number of hedgerows decreased. Larger machines needed larger fields in which to manoeuvre. Soil erosion increased and important wildlife habitat corridors were lost as hedgerows were cut.”

This year we’re going to take advantage of our county’s Conservation District plant sale and fill in any gaps in our hedgerows (as far as larger shrubs are concerned – smaller plants come later). On the shopping list are: black hawthorne (more edible berries and a nice thorny barrier), mock orange (because they smell lovely), some native roses, red flowering currants, serviceberries, beaked hazelnuts, Garry oak (our only native oak), and paper birches.

The conservation district mainly grows bulk native plants for replanting disturbed areas and mitigating wetlands. But each spring they sell to the public. The plants are small, but very cheap, and if you pre-order $100 or more, you can pick them up instead of fighting the crowds on sale day. Many areas of the US have similar programs. The National Association of Conservation Districts will point you in the right direction. Another great source for PNW natives is Burnt Ridge Nursery. They also sell fruiting plants and nut trees suitable for an edible landscape.

We’re working with two main directions to the hedgerow plan – growing native plants, to take advantage of their natural hardiness and suitability to our climate; and filling the niches certain natives would normally fill with similar, food-producing varieties. This means where a native plant community would have huckleberries or twinberries in the undergrowth, we’re planting blueberries. They have similar growing requirements, but produce much more food than the wild species. The medicinal/culinary herbs we’ve planted in back are an experiment in replacing the usual perennials and wildflowers with hardy adaptable plants we can make thorough use of. We’re also learning ethnobotany (how the local tribes used all these native plants) as we go.

For people with smaller planting areas, this substitution method might be a workable way to add some habitat while increasing human-edible food production, with a minimum of care once the plants are well-established. For advice and ideas on how to plant your own hedgerow, check out the Master Gardener program in your area. Your local native plant society can also be a good resource in figuring out what to plant in your hedgerow.

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