If there is one thing that distinguishes the place I grew up from the place I live now, it would be not the yards and fields themselves, but the boundaries. If you grew up in the USA as I did, you were likely surrounded by chain-link fences -- waist-high around our back yards and two or three times higher around our institutions, giving every kindergarten and churchyard a distinctive penal look.
Of course the steel chains were not edible, nor did they grow thicker and stronger over time. The fences did not spread shade over your land in the summer sun, nor thin out in winter to let in precious light. The chain mail did not make the soil more fertile, nor protect it from being washed away by the rain. The wires did not offer a home to wildlife, and their manufacture burned more carbon into the atmosphere rather than removing it. Here in Ireland, surrounded by hedgerows that stretch to the horizon on all sides, we see how unnecessary it all was.
By hedgerows, I don’t mean the decorative evergreen sculptures I see in front of banks and businesses, often a monoculture of invasive species. Hedgerows here are lines of densely-planted trees – fast-growing breeds like willow, elder, hazel, birch, chestnut, pine, hawthorn, blackthorn and rowan. Their branches intertwine so thickly that they weave like threads in rope – I recently tried to cut a tree down here recently and even when the base was cut through, the trunk continued to hang in the air, supported by the branches around it. Blackberry brambles and ivy help fill the spaces above, and useful weeds below.
They add variety to fields that would otherwise go sterile. Each plant adds its own chemicals and removes its own nutrients from the soil, so fields of monoculture need to be continually fertilised. Single crops provide our bodies, too, with a single set of nutrients, and only at certain times of year. They also encourage a glut of certain animals, like pests that eat our crops, and offer no homes to the birds and insectivores who would eat the pests.
Hedgerows offer fields a needed balance, a wild river through human land that can soak up our excesses and give us a reservoir of food and fuel for lean times. They give your garden a third dimension, a vertical salad bar that middle-aged and elderly can reach with a minimum of back pain.
Unlike field crops, it provides for much of the year; right now they have hawthorn shoots and dandelions for salads and nettle and bramble shoots for tea. Next month we will get linden leaves and daisies, rose hips and elderflowers later still, sloes and blackberries in the autumn.
The principle of a hedgerow is simple, but hedge-laying was an art form in traditional Ireland and England. Every year farmers would take a few days out to maintain their hundreds of metres of hedge, re-weaving or pruning the new growth, and each area had its own style and tricks. Ireland has hedge-laying associations, contests, awards and fans, and farmers take pride in maintaining the same hedges that have existed for decades or centuries.
Typically the hedge-layer takes each upward-pointing sapling, holds it at whatever height he wants the hedge to be, and cuts diagonally downward through the wood – but only partway. He then lays everything above the cut down horizontally, often weaving it through the other saplings and beating the woven branches down with a club until they were densely matted. A bit of bark and wood still connects the top and bottom of the tree, so the top remains alive and growing even as it lies flat amid many other branches. In this way, the weave itself gets thicker over time, until it is an impenetrable barrier of living wood.
You might have noticed that this is beginning to sound more and more like a wall, and so it is – walls of buildings were made the same way, in a technique called wattle-and-daub. The main difference was that the saplings were cut through and dead when they were woven into a wall – the “wattle” -- and covered in a daub plaster of clay, straw and perhaps manure. You might also notice that the basic idea is not very different than weaving a basket – there you simply take cut willow or some other sapling, partly dried, and knit them into a tight circle.
You don’t need acres of land in rural Ireland to have hedgerows; if you have a fence, you could try planting willows or some other hardy saplings underneath, weave them through the fence like thread, and see how they grow.
Vertical gardening, though, could be done with many of our human-made structures. Your house or apartment building has sides, as do your sheds, shops, schools, churches and highway overpasses. Not far away you likely have telephone poles, fences, walls, signs, gates and, of course, trees, any of which might be covered in productive garden plants. Such a project could transform ugly and dilapidated sprawl, insulate buildings, soak up rain and protect walls from the elements. If I could recommend one single thing that suburbanites could do to make their lives better, it would be to cover every vertical surface with the means of production.
Beans and peas might make a good start – they grow easily in many temperate regions, make beautiful flowers, add nitrogen to the soil, and offer a high-protein, easily stored crop. Brambles, roses other thorny plants not only provide shoots, flowers and fruits, but a natural security fence against human or animal intruders.
If you want to give this a go, first pay attention to what kind of climber you have. Ivy sinks its roots into bark or masonry, and should probably have a trellis if you are putting it on the side of your house. Roses and other scramblers, which have hooks or thorns that latch onto other plants and allow them to pull themselves upwards, would also require support. Twiners like wisterias twist their tendrils around trees and other structures, while beans whip their shoots around looking for something to latch onto.
Keep in mind how much sun or shade the plants need, and how much they are likely to get where you’re planting them. Finally, make sure they have enough water – the ground along a wall often stays dry in the rain – and that toxic paint is not flaking off if you’ll be eating it.
If you have an apartment, you could use a balcony or install a window box, and train plants to grow out around your window or grow downwards using hanging plants like nasturtiums.
Everyone lives in a different situation – a farm, a flat in town, a suburban house – but most of us have some opportunity to experiment with three-dimensional farming. Look around your neighbourhood, and try to imagine what it could be.
Top photo: Low hedge in Cwm Llinau, Wales. It seems like British hedges are often lower and tightly-knit, like a wall of basketry, while Irish hedges are more strips of dense forest.
Second photo: Gorse hedges divide the hilly country of County Clare, near Bealkelly.
Third photo: A metre of exposed bank where my daughter rides horses shows how much earth is retained by hedgerow roots.
Fourth photo: Hedgerows often line the roads here, giving the constant impression of driving through a trench. Driving across Ireland you see less of it than you imagine. Courtesy of Msmail on Flickr.com.
Bottom photo: My daughter's favourite path through the forest.