Laying siberian peashrub hedge English-style

April 24, 2014 in Gardening, Homesteading, Permaculture by Claude

Siberian peashrub (Caragana arborescens) is a very popular plant in permaculture, and for good reason: it’s a nitrogen fixer that is fast-growing and makes many flowers that are very beneficial to honeybees. The pea shrub grows several meters tall and makes a good windbreak. It drops its leaves and peas in the fall and creates the best quality soil underneath itself that you could imagine.

We have a hedge of siberian pea shrub on the two sides of our property that are sided by roads.  While all the above-mentioned properties make Caragana a great plant, its not really the best plant for a hedge. The wood is very poor quality and it tends to have branches on the inside of the shrub that rot standing. It’s so good at fixing nitrogen, the whole plant is like standing compost :) It’s quite nice looking when it’s lush and in flower, but it tends to grow top-heavy and lean over under its own weight. At the same time it gets gappy towards the bottom. Ours in particular was getting very gappy and top-heavy because it had been cut at about 2m several years by the previous owner, making it very dense at the top and leaving many gaps at the bottom.

gappy siberian peashrub hedge

Spindly and gappy siberian peashrub hedge on the left and laid English-style on the right

Last year I had done some test-cuttinng to try and remedy the situation by cutting the half of the hedge towards our yard almost to the bottom and leaving the half on the roadside standing tall, so as not to loose the privacy hedge completely. It sort of worked and new shoots grew from the bottom on the cut side, but something more needed doing to fill all the gaps.

I had been reading about hedge-laying as it’s been practised for hundreds of years in England and thought that could provide the answer. I thought about that all winter, and I tried to find some information on laying siberian pea shrub, but I could absolutely nothing on that. I did find some very useful information on hedge laying from Durham County Council: they have published a Hedge Laying and Coppicing Leaflet and another leaflet with instructions and diagrams showing how the hedge needs to be cut in order to lay it properly. That’s all great stuff, but they use beach and holly and hazel over there for hedges, not siberian peashrub. Those are very different kinds of wood!

laid Caragana hedge

Laid Caragana hedge. The hedge is now much denser. The gaps are barely big enough for that cats to fit through.

Nevertheless, I needed to do something with that hedge, so, based on the information from the leaflets and similar stuff I googled, and nothing more than a hunch that it might just work, I decided to go ahead and lay the hedge English style. I cut the stems near the ground, about 4/5 of the way through and bent the branches over. It worked pretty much as illustrated in the diagrams of the instructional leaflet. Some split a bit further down but then I just made the second cut that takes the wedge out a little lower. Some thinner branches were bent and laid along the rest without cutting. Since the hedge is made of many branches that grow straight out of the rootstock, rather than one stem that splits a little above the ground, it took a very long time to get the job done. There were hundreds of branches that needed cutting and laying, and each one takes two cuts, one to get the branch to bend without snapping, and another one to cut the wedge out so the water doesn’t run into the cut. I was at it for several days laying a little over 50 metres of hedge.

close-up of cuts

Close-up of the cuts I made to lay the hedge. A wedge is cut out so that the water runs away from the cut. This makes it less likely to rot.

I decided not to bother with sticks and all that stuff they do in England with some of the hedges that are used to fence in cattle, but instead I weaved the branches I laid over into themselves, creating a massive tangle on purpose. The  whole endeavour raised quite a few eyebrows, because nobody lays hedges like that around here. I just hope that the hedge will actually grow from the laid over part, and not just make new shoots form the rootstock. So far it’s looking promising. In any case, the gaps are now closed up, so it should be a much denser hedge. If it really works, it’s a nice way to close gaps and rejuvenate a siberian peashrub hedge without the need to coppice it completely. Now it remains about one metre high, so it should grow into a privacy hedge again within a year or two. We’ll see…