Thursday 24 January 2019

Diarmuid Gavin: Wild cards - the plants to give your garden an edge

From hazel to holly, my pick of the native plants that will give your garden a real edge


Diarmuid Gavin

My mate - a tech guy who develops businesses for the digital age and lives somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean on constant journeys between Wicklow and Palo Alto - has discovered the joy of gardening. It comes to us all at different stages of our lives and (let's call him Kealan), Kealan is now, like me, middle-aged. I got the bug early but he's now just as excited by his tomato crop ripening as he is about the iPhone X!

He lives in the country and has just renovated his house. The garden is next. Up to now it's been a field, but over the past few months he's begun to tame the beast. And his questions come thick and fast - by text, email and Instagram.

His latest garden quest is to surround his castle with a hedge. But what type? A countryside plot has specific requirements. While Kealan needs a boundary hedge to separate his new garden from a field beyond, he wants to choose a fast- growing species.

He knew that during the dormant season (mid-winter) he could purchase bare root stock cost-effectively. His initial idea was for a laurel hedge. This is a vigorous evergreen with large glossy leaves and is excellent as a screening hedge.

However, given the rural setting it struck me as an opportunity to plant a native hedgerow. This will provide much more ornamental interest throughout the year with the varied foliage, berries and flowers from the different species. In addition, a native hedgerow supports a wide range of wildlife from bees, butterflies and birds to badgers and bats. The flowers provide pollen, the branches nesting opportunities, and the berries valuable winter food. Bats even use these hedges as a kind of satellite navigation system to guide them on their flight paths.

Together as these hedgerows criss-cross Ireland through farms and gardens, they form wildlife corridors which are essential for a healthy ecology.

For the gardener, they are reliable performers in tricky conditions. As natives, they have adapted to our climate and soil so that even when the earth is poor or damp or when the climate gets extreme, they're not going to faint and wilt. So whether you've a hedge or just room for one plant, here's my top choice of native hedgerow species:

1 The Guelder rose isn't a rose, it's our native viburnum. I think it's one of the most ornamental of the hedgerow plants. Fresh green sycamore-like leaves turn red in autumn, and its pretty lace cap white flowers are followed by glassy red berries which blackbirds, bullfinches and thrushes love.

2 Rosa canina is a very prickly and fast-growing rose which flowers in May and June. The autumn hips which follow the May and June flowers are extremely high in Vitamin C and provide food for waxwings, tits, thrushes and finches.

3 Hawthorn is the classic hedgerow plant found in many farmland hedges across Ireland. It's dense, thorny and fast-growing, making it ideal as barriers for livestock. It supports hundreds of insects and its flowers, berries and foliage create an interesting tapestry.

4 Buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula) is a good choice for damper sites. It is one of the main food sources for the Brimstone Butterfly whose caterpillar eats the leaves. Birds like to nest in the dense network of branches. Its wood is a source of charcoal, used in gunpowder.

5 Blackthorn produces white blossoms very early in the year, which is a boon for bees. Butterflies lay their eggs and, in turn, birds feast on the caterpillars. Then it's our turn in winter when we can pick the berries known as sloe and make some wine or gin.

6 The hazel tree creates shelter for nesting birds and the nuts in autumn provide valuable hibernation food for squirrels and dormice. And it looks lovely draped in yellow catkins in February.

7 Holly (pictured) provides dense cover for birds and, of course, those wonderful berries in winter. For the gardener, its handsome glossy evergreen leaves deliver structure and colour in the depths of winter.

8 Sambucus, or elder, produces creamy white flat heads of flowers in summer followed by black berries which are rich in vitamin C, though these should be cooked before eating. Good foraging for wildlife and humans - the flowers can be made into wine or cordial or even fried as fritters! With its five-leaflet foliage, this plant will add layers of interest and texture to the hedgerow.

So, those are my suggestions for Kealan's country pile, but maybe it's time for you to be a little more daring and use something native and wild in the suburbs or city too?

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