Last year, I designed and planted a hedgerow that included edible and medicinal plants mixed with native plants. My hedgerow has multiple functions: edible and medicinal plant foraging, habitat for a variety of wildlife, and an aesthetic design that I can view from the living room and kitchen windows. My hedgerow is placed on the edge of a natural section of native plants including several tall Douglas fir trees. My plan is to continue to add a variety of plants each year to increase the yield and diversity.
The use of plants in a hedgerow design has been utilized to delineate areas on land for thousands of years. Long before barbed wire and chain-link fences, hedgerows were created to provide protection from both wild animals and Roman conquerors. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hedgerows were legal instruments used to identify property ownership under the United Kingdom’s Enclosure Acts.
Unlike the cultivated hedges of estate gardens, hedgerows are the remnants of woodlands cleared to make way for agricultural fields in the United Kingdom. Reflecting their ancestral forests, they contained a diversity of wild plant species that not only indicated property lines but provided habitat for wildlife and foraging for peasants. In the United States, hedgerows were not encouraged as they were viewed as using land that could be more productive when tilled for agriculture.
Benefits of a Hedgerow
Sustainable foraging: Growing edible and medicinal species contributes to the pantry and the apothecary while reducing energy used to travel to wildcraft or purchase from suppliers.
Windbreak: In areas of constant wind, hedgerows can serve as a windbreak and minimize the sometimes destructive and drying effects of wind. Hedgerows planted near a vegetable garden will help conserve water by diffusing and redirecting the wind.
Privacy: A well-designed hedgerow can contribute to the feel of a sanctuary in your backyard and is far more attractive than a wooden or chain-link fence.
Noise reduction: A hedgerow won’t stop the neighbor’s dog from barking but it can reduce traffic and neighborhood noise.
Barrier against wildlife: If planted with thorny species, a hedgerow can deter wild animals from areas where they are not wanted.
Wildlife habitat: Because of the diversity of species and the food and cover they provide, hedgerows will attract birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, butterflies, moths, and small mammals. Incorporating native plant species is essential to supporting native wildlife.
Riparian buffer: Nature often creates a natural hedgerow along creeks, streams, and rivers but if you have a riparian area that is void of a hedgerow, creating one will greatly improve the riparian habitat quality.
Pollinators and beneficial insects: A diverse hedgerow will attract both pollinators and predatory insects who will eat the insects that are eating your plants.
Soil stabilization: A thickly planted and diverse hedgerow will slow the water on a slope which helps to reduce erosion. The roots of perennial plants help maintain the integrity of a slope.
Aesthetics: A well-designed collection of plants can enhance a view or yard with seasonal flowers, fruits, and colors.
How to Create and Maintain a Hedgerow
Installing a hedgerow is a long-term commitment as the maturity rate of different species can take 4-8 years. Once established, a hedgerow can last for decades offering annual harvests for both humans and animals.
Though hedgerows are found in agricultural fields, a smaller version can be easily adapted to fit along one side of a suburban backyard or serve as a fence between two neighbors. The key is to plan a layout that is manageable by following the Golden Rule of landscape design: select the right plant for the right place.
Traditional hedgerows in large agricultural fields were seldom pruned but a cultivated hedge, especially in an urban or suburban yard, requires some annual pruning and clean-up to ensure the plants will continue to produce and are easily accessible. As you select plants for your hedgerow design, consider the amount of pruning needed to maintain both the size and productivity of each plant.
Designing Your Foraging Hedge
Edible and medicinal hedgerows consist of perennial and self-sowing plants and benefit from a well-planned design starting with site selection and bed preparation to ensure that each plant thrives. The following design tips can save you time, money, and energy.
Select the site for your edible and medicinal herb hedgerow and consider any additional uses like privacy, noise reduction, wind protection, wildlife habitat, microclimate, and/or integrated pest management. Your hedgerow does not have to be planted in straight rows! Consider shapes like a crescent, a wide triangle, or a circle.
Measure the site. A hedgerow is usually longer than it is wide but the width should allow for two to four layers of plants. Use a hose (or sprinkle flour) to outline the area you have selected. Create an initial garden layout using the mature size of your selected species. Other design considerations include:
- Plant size: Perennials take 3-5 years to mature. Plan your design based on the mature size of each plant when choosing a site.
- Plant layer: Start with shrubs and small trees, adding in smaller plants as desired.
- Plant fruits: Consider the type of fruits you can harvest as well as ones that benefit the native wildlife.
- Support pollinators: Include plants that offer nectar and protein for native pollinators.
- Microclimates: If you have an area that is consistently moist, a hedgerow designed with plants that prefer wet environments can be the ideal solution. A shady spot can host a small hedgerow of plants that prefer shade. Observe the area before you design.
- Water: Access to water makes it easier to care for the new garden. Native perennials need additional watering during the first three years and during drought conditions.
- Soil: Know what kind of soil you have. Some cultivated plants can be picky about their soil needs.
- Sun: Determine the amount of sun the location receives; most edible and medicinal plants prefer a minimum of 5-6 hours during the growing season.
- Shade: Once mature, hedgerows can create shade and change growing conditions for nearby plants or gardens including those planted in the hedgerow.
- Wind: Find the direction of the prevailing wind. Constant wind can be drying and destructive and will need additional watering and possible protection.
- Current plantings: Utilizing large shrubs already in your landscape is an easy way to form the foundation of your hedgerow.
- Access: Select a site that allows easy access to harvest berries, leaves, and flowers.
- Structures: Avoid placing a hedgerow against wooden structures like fences and buildings. Roots can damage foundations and shrubs can encourage early decay.
- Neighbors: Will the site impact your neighbors’ access, views, or property? Will fruit be dropping in their yard? Will neighbors view wildlife as pests? The ideal scenario is to discuss your hedgerow plan with your neighbor before you install it.
- Pesticide drift: If pesticides or herbicides are used by neighbors, you may want to locate your hedgerow so that it cannot be contaminated by drift, which occurs when light winds blow the chemical during application.
Prepping the Site
Prep the site for planting. If the site is currently covered in grass, the easiest way to eliminate it is to use the sheet mulch method:
- Dig up the site, turning over the grass so that it is now buried. Avoid tilling as it damages the structure of your soil and exposes thousands of dormant weed seeds to light, leading to germination.
- Lay down layers of corrugated cardboard or newspaper, wet thoroughly, and then add thick layers of soil, compost, or aged manure (or all three). Aim for at least 12 inches of layers.
- To avoid weeds growing in the new planting bed, cover it with a thick layer of straw until ready to plant.
- Allow this bed to sit for a minimum of one month, the longer the better. Create this bed in the spring and it will be ready to plant shrubs in the fall which is an ideal time for planting woody species.
Determine what your native soil is (clay, sandy, loamy) and choose plants based on that soil since the roots of the hedgerow plants will live there. Native plants are ideal since they have already adapted to local conditions.
Another option is to amend the site’s soil so that you can utilize plants that prefer a garden environment.
The Right Plant for the Right Place
Now for the fun part – choosing your plants! There are many edible and medicinal shrubs, herbs, and vines to consider but there are several factors to keep in mind when selecting plants. Research each plant thoroughly and create a detailed design before purchasing plants.
Hardiness zones: The USDA has identified the hardiness zones that are based on the average dates of the first and last frosts. (Other countries have similar systems.) You can find your zone here. Plants are identified by the zone they grow best in. For example, plants listed as Zone 7 will survive in zones 7 and above (warmer regions) but will likely not survive in the harsh winters of Zone 5.
Native plants: Look to your region for native plants that produce edible and medicinal fruits, flowers, and leaves. Native plants have successfully adapted to their regional climate, soil, and pollinators. A native plant hedgerow will also attract insects, birds, and mammals which means sharing may have to be tolerated. And you will have to be on your toes to keep up with birds who are excellent at stripping berry bushes seemingly overnight!
Cultivated trees: Fruit trees like apple, pear, peach, and cherry need annual maintenance like pruning and pest control. They are better suited to a plant guild design or on a larger scale, in an orchard design.
Invasive plants: Check your state’s noxious plant list for any plants in your region that spread aggressively and avoid planting them.
Similar needs: Ensure that the plants you select have similar needs for sun and water. Plants can die from both too much and too little water. Pay attention to the amount of sun needed by each species; the sun and its heat can kill a shade-loving plant in just a few weeks.
Aesthetics: Anticipate how your hedgerow will look during each season. Deciduous shrubs and trees will be leafless in the winter, and a row of hardy perennial herbs that die in the winter will change the winter appearance of your hedge. This year I am adding several Red Twig Dogwoods for some winter color. I can use the prunings for basket-making.
Maintenance: Traditional hedgerows are seldom pruned or maintained and can become an entangled mass of plants, which is ideal if you want a barrier. If that is not appealing or appropriate for your space, then select plants that can be easily accessed and pruned every 3-5 years. Pruning will usually increase fruit production.
Suckering habits: Suckers are the new growth that sprouts from the base of a plant. Many shrubs use suckering as a natural method to spread. This is a great way to grow a thick hedgerow but if used as a natural fence between neighbors, suckers will pop up on your neighbor’s side.
Deer, bear, and rabbit resistance: If you share your space with wild animals, then you know they are opportunists; if it’s edible, they will eat it! You may need to provide protection in the form of a temporary fence or plant species that are deer resistant. Using thorny species like native roses, hawthorn, and gooseberries can help deter deer and bears.
Diseases and Pest Problems: Some species and cultivars (cultivated varieties) not native to your region may be prone to diseases or attract insect pests. Checking with your state’s Extension Service about the best-cultivated varieties for your region can save you time and money.
Other Design Strategies
In your design, start with larger shrubs to form the foundation of a hedgerow. (For large hedgerows, some trees can be utilized.) The next layer could be a smaller set of shrubs and a third layer could be perennial herbs. Annual herbs or flowers can be added until the hedgerow matures and can be utilized as a “chop and drop” mulch. Legumes can be used to increase nitrogen in the soil. An edible or medicinal groundcover could be also added to protect the soil. Below is a sampling of the many edible and medicinal plants that could be used in a cultivated hedgerow. There are more options described in the Plants for the Future database.
Extra Large Shrubs
Varied USDA Zones; Mature Size 15-25 feet tall
- Hawthorn (Crateagus spp.)
- Filbert (Corylus spp.)
- Elderberry (Sambucus spp.)
- Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)
- Siberian Pea Shrub (Caragana arborescens; nitrogen fixer)
- Seabuckthorn/Seaberry (Hippophae rhamnoides)
- Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mascula)
- Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)
Varied USDA Zones; Mature Size 6-12 feet tall
- Saskatoon Berry (Amelanchier alnifolia)
- Gooseberry (Ribes divaricatum; thorny)
- Currant (Ribes spp.)
- Aronia/Chokeberry (Aronia melancarpa)
- Goumi (Elaeagnus multiflora; nitrogen fixer)
- Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)
- Goji berry (Lycium barbarum)
- High Bush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum)
- Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
- Crampbark (Viburnum opulus)
Medium Sized Shrubs
Varied USDA Zones; Mature Size 3-6 feet tall (Search for smaller species in the following genera: Corylus, Amelanchier, Rhus, Ribes, Rhus)
- Jostaberry (Ribes x culverwellii)
- Rose (Rosa spp; check for native roses; thorny)
- Willow (Salix alba; Salix nigra)
- Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium)
- High Bush Blueberry (native Vaccinium spp.)
- Beebalm (Monarda spp.)
- Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
- Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
- Marshmallow (Althea officinalis)
- Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
Varied USDA Zones; Mature Size 6 inches to 3 feet
- Rosemary (Rosemary officinalis)
- Echinacea spp.
- Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis)
- Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
- Hyssop (Hyssop officinalis)
- Lavender (Lavendula spp.)
- Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
- Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Vines & Climbing Perennials
Varied USDA Zones; Vines can utilize the structure of shrubs to twine and grow.
- Hops (Humulus lupulus)
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
- Kiwi (Actinidia deliciosa)
- Schisandra chinensis
- Aerial Yam (Dioscorea bulbifera)