The beech or fagus sylvatica is one of the most widely used hedging plants, particularly in the field of native species of trees and shrubs. Despite being deciduous, the common beech has a special quality in that it holds on to most of its leaves throughout the winter. Most of them will not fall until the new, green growth pushes them off during springtime. It would be misleading however, to call the beech an evergreen, because its leaves do gradually change colour from green to coppery red in the fall. These properties make the beech ideal for year-round screening hedges and as windbreaks, with the pleasant bonus of a beautiful autumn and winter colour.
Although the beech is most commonly associated with tall trees, it is not unusual to see beech hedges in public parks. This likely has to do with the fact that the beech has relatively low maintenance requirements. Since the common beech is native to Europe, it will flourish well on our soil and really only requires pruning to prevent it from growing too tall. In a dense forest, a common beech is able to reach heights of up to 45 metres, which of course is not recommended for hedging. With this minimal maintenance routine, your beech hedge will be dense and resistant to wind and all that is left to do for you is to enjoy the vibrant colours and the elegant shapes of the leaves.
Beech for Native Hedging
Despite being native to Europe, the beech only survived the last glacial period around the Mediterranean Sea. From there, it reconquered its original habitat. Traditionally, beeches were planted as solitary trees, often as windbreak for a farmstead. This is not the only way in which the history of the beech is inextricably linked with farming. For instance, young branches with the leaves still on were often dried to feed the cattle. Goats in particular appear to be fond of beech branches. It is suggested that feeding these branches to the cattle had a positive effect on the production of dairy. The nuts of the beech are slightly poisonous to humans. The leaves, however, are edible and allegedly have anti-inflammatory effects.
Due to its fine and short grain, the wood of the common beech is considered to be easy to work with. It can easily be soaked, glued, dyed and varnished, especially when steamed. Its wood is especially popular with carpenters and is therefore often used in furniture, since apart from heavy structural support, it is more or less suited for anything. However, it may be even more popular as firewood, as it is known to burn a long time without too much noise. Beechwood is also very well-suited for grilling and smoking meat and other foods.
With so much use for all the separate parts of the beech, it is perfectly understandable that it took a relatively long time for people to find out its excellent qualities for hedging purposes. Other plants were generally used for hedges between farmsteads or other properties. However, since garden enthusiasts discovered the beauty of a straight beech hedge in the eighteenth century, the popularity of beech hedging rapidly increased and the common beech quickly became one of the most popular hedge plants of the world. Given its origins in this part of the world, it is hardly surprising that the beech flourishes really well on European soil. It is certainly a good fit for our environment and climate.
Since beech is a very useful plant, all parts of the plant were used before it was discovered as a hedge plant. In addition, it does not make a good flowering hedge, it has no thorns to serve as an intruder hedge and for privacy, evergreens are more popular choices. However, along with the privet, it is one of the very few deciduous hedge plants that can provide screening even during the winter months. The dry leaves of the beech may not enhance its appearance as much as the green leaves do during the spring and summer, but they keep your hedge dense enough to shield your garden from whoever passes by on the other side. This quality makes the beech a very cost-efficient plant for screening purposes, especially as a bare-root plant.
Beech Hedge Planting and Maintenance
Bare-root beeches are relatively cheap, especially when compared to potted plants or instant hedges, but they are only available during the winter. Fortunately, the winter is an ideal time to plant your beech hedge. This hedge plant is very hardy and though it prefers a position the full sun or partial shade, it will thrive in a wide range of sites. It would be wise to plant your beech hedge in a location that is not too windy, however. This is not because the species cannot cope with the wind, because the common beech and the copper beech are very sturdy plants, but strong winds can blow some of the dry leaves off before the new leaves have appeared. This will not keep your beech hedge from thriving in the following year, but it will greatly impair its screening qualities.
Beech is a relatively fast-growing plant. With an average annual growth rate of 30 to 60 centimetres, it grows remarkably fast for a native deciduous tree. As a result, it is necessary to prune your beech hedge frequently, especially if you want its appearance to remain relatively formal. One pruning session per year, preferably in late summer or early autumn, should suffice. It is possible to trim your beech hedge in the spring, but be sure to hold off on cutting into any part of the plant until the first shoots have reached a length of approximately 20 centimetres. Either way, you can enjoy its gorgeous foliage for a long time.
Advantages of a Beech Hedge
Beeches tolerate a wide variety of soil conditions. Most well-drained soils – acidic or alkaline (chalky) – are suitable, save for heavy clay, exceptionally dry or wet soil or waterlogged sites. The fairly similar, but tougher hornbeam would be better suited for these conditions. The beech is also a poor choice in very cold or exposed areas, in which the hornbeam would again be the better option. Despite the fact that hornbeams offer a wider array of options in terms of challenging locations and conditions, it is important to keep in mind that it does not retain as many reddish-brown leaves in the winter. In short, while more demanding than the hornbeam, the beech has more aesthetic value and offers more privacy during the cold months. Should you desire a display of colour all year round, consider the copper beech. As its English name suggests, the fagus sylvatica 'Atropurpurea' has beautiful dark red to purple foliage.
Young beeches bear no fruits; only mature trees can produce nuts. In addition, the flowers produced by beech hedges in April and May are rather insignificant, so the aesthetic value of the beech mostly lies in its handsome winter foliage. Also, they fit nicely among other types of hedge plants and are therefore an ideal component of mixed hedges, while also providing shelter for wildlife, which is not very common for evergreen hedges, such as conifers. Beech trees make outstanding native, wildlife-friendly, traditional hedges with the privacy of evergreen hedges at a great price. Beech hedges will add visual interest during all seasons.
Though it took garden enthusiasts some time to realise what an amazing hedge plant the beech is, it has since become one of the most popular deciduous plants for hedging. It is easy to understand why, as it has a number of qualities that make it ideal for this purpose. It grows faster than most other deciduous hedge plants, it guarantees year-round privacy even though it is not an evergreen and moreover, it is simply an attractive plant.