Hawthorn

I love hawthorn or Crataegus monogyna. (Of course there is also midland hawthorn Crataegus laevigata). A member of the rose family, hawthorn is equally prickly, but it’s a wonderful all rounder and a must for any wildlife garden, hedgerow or woodland creating project – and what’s even better is it’s easy to grow.

When I was younger when my Dad would take me for walks through our local woodlands, he would call it ‘bread and cheese’ and we would pick off and eat the young shoots. They don’t particularly taste of anything, let alone bread and cheese, but have also been called ‘poor man’s bread and butter’. Over at Plant-Lore.com the different accounts back up the old thoughts that hawthorn is often believed to be unlucky, especially if you bring it into the house but to even cut one down. It is also believed to be associated with fairies.

Recent leaf burst. Jan 2020.

One thing for sure, hawthorn is a brilliant plant for wildlife. It will benefit pollinators with it’s pollen rich flowers which traditionally bloom in May (although don’t be surprised if you see them earlier now), whilst in autumn the berries – or haws – are an essential food source for birds and small mammals. When in a hedgerow hawthorn provides a nesting site for birds, and winter shelter for invertebrates, and in a woodland hawthorn brings structural diversity to the canopy, being a lower-growing shrub.

Bees love hawthorn

You can take cuttings from hawthorn too. I have found the best method is to take green cuttings in spring, cutting just below a leaf node. I use rooting powder to give it a helping hand and then pop into well draining soil and water. I then add a stick taller than the cutting, cover with a plastic sandwich bag and leave in a tray which can be watered when needed. When I have done this the success rate isn’t perfect but around 70%. This method has also worked for other hedging species.

Despite the folklore tales, hawthorn benefits from a prune and can survive coppicing too, extending the life of the individual plants. If your hedge gets a bit leggy, or too big, cutting down to the base will encourage lots of new shoots, resulting in a bushier thicker shrub. Hawthorn can even be laid to create a wonderful stock-proof fence.

Whether you want to encourage birds to your garden, create a wildlife friendly boundary or add structure to a woodland planting scheme – hawthorn is the plant for you!

Hedgerows

Hedgerows

No matter the size of your greenspace there is likely room for a native hedgerow. British hedgerows have been in decline since the 1700s and continue to suffer losses through neglect, poor cutting, spraying, overstocking and even removal. Yet our hedgerows are important for many species of British wildlife.

Hawthorne Crataegus monogyna

130 BAP (biodiversity action plan) species are associated with hedges, as are over 1500 insects including many important pollinators. Bats use hedgerows for commuting and foraging, stag beetle larvae can live in the dead wood, dormice spend most of their time following spring emergence in the bushy branches and great crested newts take refuge at the base.

If you don’t have a hedgerow, or the one you have is a bit gappy, there’s still time to get planting as the planting season runs from Oct-March. There are many options on which species you can plant, and the Woodland Trust offers packages of hedging whips of local provenance (and so reducing the biosecurity risk of importing plants) including free packages for schools and community projects. Hazel (Corylus avellana), hawthorn Cratagus monogyna), blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), oak (Quercus robur), sweet chestnut (Castanaea sativa), field maple (Acer campestre), elder (Sambucus nigra), holly (Ilex aquifolia), crab apple (Malus sylvestris), and ash (Fraxinus excelsior) all make great hedging shrubs. I like to add in dogrose (Rosa canina), guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), and spindle (Eunonymous europaeus) for colour.

Spindle Eunonymous europaeus

It’s recommended to plant hedgerows in two rows with plants approximately 30cm apart (or 6 per metre) with the plants zig-zagging to keep the gaps smaller. By doing this you will create a nice dense hedgerow which could later be laid making it an ideal stock-proof boundary, and if managed well, will probably outlive you!

Once you have your hedgerow it is important to care for it. Hedgerows benefit from being cut, by doing so you encourage new growth and extend the life of the plants and the size of the hedge will determine the way you do this. I love hand pruning smaller hedgerows finding it therapeutic, especially on a bright winter’s day when the birds have started singing again. If your hedges are meters long or are field boundaries, you can still hand prune the hedge however this may not always be practical.

Instead you could use a flail which is the most common method for longer hedgerows, although they may damage stems greater than 2.5cm, weakening the hedgerow. Using a tractor mounted circular saw can avoid this. Whichever method you choose, it’s important to consider the shape you’re cutting to – the ideal is an A-shape of around 2m high and 1.5m wide at the base. You can top this if you wish, but not doing so allows some tree species to grow tall.

Red campion Silene diocia

Cutting should be carried out on a rotation of approximately 2-3 years (though cutting season has finished now to allow birds to nest). Many invertebrate species such as the skippers overwinter in hedgerows as eggs, cocoons or in dead stems and cutting on rotation allows these species to survive.

Other ways you can help wildlife include leaving dead wood in situ, maintaining hedge banks and ditches, and enhancing the ground flora. Emorsgate have some wonderful hedgerow seed mixes for wildflowers and grasses suited to semi-shade and the you can buy quantities appropriate for your hedge, whether just a couple of meters or entire field margins! I’ve used them many times with great success.

Hedge woundwort Stachys sylvatica

Originally written for The Harrowing Times (Norfolk smallholders training group).

Back after a little break

It’s been nearly two years since I last posted. A lot has happened since then and we are in a new home with new, smaller garden. Instead of being in suburban London, we’re living in rural Norfolk in the Breckland area. We are still lucky enough to be adjacent to a woodland, however the two woodlands couldn’t be more different from each other; the previous woodland was a large ancient woodland whilst the current woodland was recently planted (c. 1950) and is just a couple of acres surrounded by crop fields. There is a meadow adjacent to the property which looks like we may have use of later in the year, and if this comes to fruition, then we plan to acquire some sheep for wool production and grazing! Watch this space.

With this move there is a noticeable change in the wildlife which we are seeing in and near our garden here compared to London, although we have only been here since Autumn last year so we don’t have the best two seasons to go by. There are lots of birds of prey here, including a buzzard which seems to always be around somewhere and a pair of kestrels, not to mention the rooks which live in the woodland and flock each morning and evening in such a wonderfully haunting way.  I have noticed an absence of early pollinators this year however,  which I hope this is much more to do with a change in location northwards and the recent cold snap, and of course some of the species I would see previously aren’t as common here either.

As well as moving, I’ve also signed up to the National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS). The general idea is to record plants in three 5x5m quadrats and two linear plots within a 1km specified area, and do this twice a year for as many years as possible to record any plant and habitat changes. You don’t need to be a botanical expert and you are given lots of resources to help you with recording. My 1km plot is north-east of Norwich in the Broadland area, but is still relatively rural with approx 85% of the plot being agricultural fields. I made the initial visit last summer to identify possible plot locations and will be returning again in late spring to being the first year of recording. I have applied for a second, local plot which consists of a large proportion of woodland. I’ll update with the progress of recording here on this blog. If you’d like to get your own 1km square head over to the website here and sign up.

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The Pond – Part 1: Creating a home for the frogs

I’m going to kick this blog off with a post about my favourite part of the garden; the pond. It’s my favourite for many reasons but the main two are that it didn’t cost us anything to install and it attracts so much wildlife to the garden. I really think that having a pond, no matter how small makes such a difference if you are aiming to attract wildlife.

When we viewed the house last year we were sold when we saw the garden and was told that we were free to do as we like with it (within reason of course!). It was a blank canvas – an overgrown large patch of grass with the woodland behind our house encroaching into the back part of the garden. Perfect.

A blank canvas

We moved in and I was eager to get going. It was June, it was hot and I was pregnant so progress was slow. It took us a while to get around to mowing the lawn as we had to purchase a petrol brushcutter. The grass was so long the flymo couldn’t handle it. Standing by the edge of the garden I noticed that the ground below my feet was springy and squelched. It looked like the rest of the lawn, but something felt different. After a bit of investigating, we found a small pre-formed pond which had been filled with rocks and bricks with grass growing over the top. It had been abandoned and we decided to bring it back to life.

I emptied the pond of bricks, rocks and some of the mud, piling up the soil on the bank for the marginal plants. There was water in the pond still so I left a lot of the mud there thinking that perhaps some of the creatures had survived, especially as i found so many frogs and toads hiding out under the rocks. Also, by leaving in some mud it added an instant pond bed. I wondered whether it would be too rich in nutrients which could cause problems later on and ideally I should have carried out a nutrient test, but I took a chance and left it in (mainly because pulling all the bricks out had worn me out and I was eager to see it finished!).

Unfortunately I had to stop anyway because I managed to put a hole in the side of the pond with my spade. Tip – be careful when using tools to dig or clear a pond, especially if it is made using pond liner – seems obvious doesn’t it! I ordered some pond putty and left the pond alone for a few days.

With the hole fixed, it was time to add some structures for all the frogs and toads to get in and out and to hide in. I used the rocks to build up one side of the pond and added a couple of logs. Ideally a wildlife pond should have a shallow end or a gradual transition from the bank to the pond. This is achievable with a pond-liner but not as easy with a preformed pond. It’s also about working with what you have too when renting.

We were lucky to have a beautiful large fern growing next to the pond. My partner has a good eye for aesthetics and so to compliment the fern he suggested we piled up more rocks around the edge of the pond and under the fern. By this point, we already had a resident living in the pond. A large fat frog had moved in and every now and then popped his head above the water to check out his new digs.

Finally, the last stage was to add the plants. I planted lesser spearwort Ranunculus flammula, soft rush Juncus effusus, and purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria in the pond itself in basket planters, and ivy-leaved duckweed Lemna trisulca and a water soldier Stratoites aloides in the middle.

Around the edge I planted a few garden plants I brought with us from our old house including purple toadflax Linaria purpurea and the following native marginal plants:

  • silverweed Argentina anserina
  • ragged robin Silene flos-cuculi
  • water figwort Scrophularia auriculata
  • teasel Dipsacus fillonum
  • marsh ragwort Senecio aquaticus
  • marsh woundwort Stachys palustris
  • rosebay willowherb Chamerion angustifolium – seeds
  • great willowherb Epilobium hirsutum – seeds
  • hemp agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum – seeds
  • Common fleabane Pulicaria dysenterica – seeds.

One the plants were in, it was just a case of letting nature take over. We were surprised just how quickly the wildlife found it. The foxes would come to drink from it each evening, dragonflies laid their eggs in it and bats came to feed on the midges emerging from it. By Autumn, the pond had established and we couldn’t wait to see what arrived in spring, but that’s a whole other blog post.

Autumnal pond