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Privet Pruning Marathon

Updated: Jul 12, 2018

I decided to tackle the hedges. There are hawthorn and privet mixed hedges near the orchard. I decided to tidy these up as they had overgrown over 10 years or so and were now a spray of 12’ tangles of branches. It being summer they were covered with white sprays of flowers.

I read on the internet how to manage overgrown hedges. I wasn’t ever so successful.

No one on the internet appears to have had a hedge overgrown to this amount. We battled our way to the middle of the hedge, if one looked closely the original shape could still be seen from the skeletal remains of branches cut decades ago. The hedges traditionally had been kept trimmed to chest height and were about 2’ width. There were lots of skeletal guides of pre=existing shaping.

With my cousins helping we started in, but between us and the hedge there were also sprays of round bushes which I did not recognise in the vegetable garden which were growing in abundance. They had long stems from a central core, dark green leaves which were shiny like privet and white sprays of flowers resembling Stephanotis in the heaviness of their perfume and lilac in the shape of the sprays and waxiness of the flower. We had to fight through these to reach the hedge.

I had read on the internet that one has a number of options at restoring old, overgrown hedges:

1 cut it back to 2’ high all the way along.

2 take it out and start gain.

3 take it down to 2’ height by a third.

As my hedge did not resemble any of the delicately overgrown ones on the internet I was anxious. I was worried I might kill it if I took it hard back, I would also loose the skeleton guide of the old hedge, something I desperately needed if I was to ever having anything other than a wibbly wobbly hedge in future. I have a vague memory of Dad having guide lines for things but I think he just did the hedges by body measurement, collar bone, armpit height? They were always straight, I’m a bit intimidated

I also didn’t want to take the hedge hard back because I feared after all these years it might get too much of a shock, it was very, very overgrown and had been for so long, I didn’t want to kill it or overly shock our elderly neighbour by a sudden loss of hedge which may take a few years to re-establish to the correct height. I decided to take it back by a third. In theory an easier task!

First we had to tackle the semi-circular flowering pompoms growing in front of the hedge. They were quite pretty to look at but would take your eye out with their long straight branches covered in flowers and leaves- I now think they were / are runners from the privet. It was almost upsetting hacking them back, they didn’t respond to the scythe- possibly because my technique was a little bit dodgy. We needed to hack back with clippers. If I had known someone who wanted long thin branches approx. 4-6’ in length in large quantities for crafting or gardening they could have had them but they went on a compost pile.

Once we got to the hedge we had to count every 3rd branch and cut it at approx. 2’ I hoped this would make the long thin branches bush out in future. Additionally, there were no longer bird nests in the hedge. The branches were now too long to support nests, so birds were having to find alternative accommodation.

I remember when I was little and when my children also were little, Dad would come and find us and put his finger to his lips. He would indicate for us to follow him.

He would then lead us silently to a hedge and gently part it to show us sparrow, black bird and wrens nests. The rue was to remain quiet and not to touch anywhere near the nest in order that the birds would not abandon the nest. We stayed just for a short time ensuring there were no distressed parents flying nearby.

We would sit some distance away, so as not to cause concern to watch, we would then take keen interest in watching the parent birds fly in from all over the garden feed their babies and Dad would keep us updated about how many young had survived and flown.

I remember my youngest daughter telling me she didn’t remember doing this. I said this to dad when he was 96 ish. I told him that I missed doing that. He then told me there was one up near the orchard. We processioned up there carrying an elderly wooden ladder, which hadn’t been used for several years. Dad used to cut up old drain pipes and put wooden tops and bottoms on them and fasten them to out buildings. There was indeed a nest on an out building. Dad told me to climb up and lift the nest box down. It was full of 7 blue tits, in partial feather heads in the centre bottoms and tail fathers around the outside. I could not get the rusted nail off the box and was worried I’d break the box and put the babies at risk. Dad climbed up the ladder, this caused me some anxiety, I had images of taking dad to casualty after the ladder broke and having to explain that dad fell off the ladder trying to show my children baby blue tits standing on a wooden ladder 8’ up.

Fortunately none of this happened and he got them down and returned them with no problem.

My plan for the hedge was to reduce it to 2’ by a third and then over the following 2 years to repeat this. The internet sites indicated that over the years this would lead to a thicker hedge like we had previously which would allow nesting and other wildlife.

This is what the articles all alluded to. Easier said than done!

The branches of hedges do not line up to be counted and one has to get into the centre of a tangle of branches. It’s dappled shade in the middle of such an overgrown hedge. It smells of damp earth, and privet smells of woody, sharpness, mixed with the heady scent of the flowers it was a beautiful environment. It was quiet and a relaxing environment, you could hear bird song and the movement of animals as we were clipping odd branches. There were the sounds of bees all around, as we worked more and more into the hedge we could hear really loud bee noises. We thought we had found a nest as the noise was intense. There were a lot of bees everywhere, they were not bothered by us at all, but we did not want to stumble upon a nest. We gave up as the noise got louder and louder.

I waited until the winter. I have seen several wild wasp nests but not bees but thought bees would nest on hollowed out trunks not in a sprawling hedge. I searched the hedge once the leaves had dropped. It appears there was no nest. The noise was simply the number of bee’s madly collecting nectar from the flowers in the hedge.

When we were scything the orchard we found two old bee hives, one complete and still standing as it had since I was a child, the second had been kicked over by poachers but was still partially intact. Both buzzed happily. As I was busy I didn’t stay to watch what its occupants were but I suspect bees as I hadn’t seen or heard any wasps.

I learnt as a child bees won’t sting you near a hive as long as you don’t interfere with them, the other rule is not to stand for prolonged periods in their flight path to the hive, we gave them a wide berth by a couple of feet once I’d scythed around them.

Not one to avoid a challenge, I pondered over the bees. I would love to bee keep, I have no experience of it as Dad did this with my brother. I can’t actually bee keep because I don’t live here. I wanted to encourage bees to use the garden and was confident I had them already. I didn’t want my behaviour to make them leave or make the garden unsustainable for them. I did some reading such as this about natural bee keeping

A few months later I found a possible solution. I visited Langhorne’s Plantery for an open day in the summer. There I found my solution- Gardeners beehive. This is designed to be like a tree trunk. The bees live there undisturbed by us, extra boxes can be bought to collect excess honey if wanted.

It will take time for me to prepare the land but they are ideal and planting up so that bee friendly plants or wild flowers abound will make so much difference. I also need to consider the impact of my work. For example no cutting the privet in bloom and maybe keeping some of it long to continue the bloom to feed the insect population. I try not to use chemicals to garden, this is so much more of an incentive. I am also considering a wildflower meadow rather than the rambling brambles currently proliferating.

In the meantime I’m going to make my own garden at home bee friendly. Anyone would think I’m chaotic and easily distracted. There’s a plan, just an evolving one.

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