If you’re considering growing a hedge, this article’s for you. It’s time to lay the groundwork for a hedge that’s both functional – and edible! So banish the boxwood, privet and leylandii, because there’s a cornucopia of alternative hedging plants that will also produce something tasty.
Hedges serve many important functions in the garden – not merely marking out the boundary between one garden and the next, but filtering strong winds, providing a leafy backdrop to flower borders, dampening intrusive sounds and offering privacy from the outside world.
A living wall of green is also a boon for wildlife. This vertical tangle of branches and foliage provides food and shelter for many species of bugs, birds and mammals. Gardens blessed with hedges are an order of magnitude healthier than those without.
Fruit Bushes for Hedging
The first thing to consider is whether to plant a hedge consisting of just one species, or several. Single species hedges give a more uniform look, but a mixed-species hedge can be stunning – just think of all those contrasting leaf shapes and textures, punctuated by eruptions of colour from flowering favourites such as elderflower. Plant an edible mixed hedge and you’ll have a tempting succession of hedge-gathered harvests to look forward to.
In temperate parts of the world the classic edible hedge could well take on the typical appearance of a mixed British hedgerow, with its riot of haws, nuts, hips, and berries.
Suitable tree and shrub species include elder, whose flowers and berries give two opportunities to make a delicious country wine. Then there are hazels for springtime catkins – so valued by early pollinators – and, of course, their autumn haul of nuts. To this pair you can add blackthorn, whose fruits infuse the delicious winter-warming tipple of sloe gin; rambling roses for their hips (great in jellies and jams); and sprawling throughout, blackberry canes, perhaps of a spineless variety to save your fingers when picking and pruning!
Hardy fuchsias also make good hedging plants, particularly in coastal locations. Their fruits are edible, with those from good eating varieties like ‘Riccartonii’ being particularly prized.
More Edible Hedge Ideas
Several wild fruit trees can be trained and contained within a hedge, where they will form a dense habit while yielding lots of small but delicious or useful fruits.
First up is the cherry plum, also known as the ‘myrobalan plum’ – a fast-growing tree that produces masses of fruits a little larger than a cherry. The fruits are can be eaten just as they are or can be used as the basis for all manner of jams, wines and liqueurs. The cherry plum was traditionally planted to create orchard shelterbelts. In fact, cherry plums are well suited to this close association with orchard trees. The early appearance of its stunning, pale-pink blossom helps to attract a legion of pollinating insects, which will go on to fertilise other fruit trees.
Another plant that bears masses of flowers and fruits is the crab apple. The clusters of tiny apples are too sour to eat on their own but make an excellent jelly to accompany roasted meats. Like the cherry plum, the blossom is an incredible boon to wildlife. In Britain some 93 species of insect are associated with the crab apple. Wherever you plant it, it’s sure to bring beneficial bugs of all types to your garden.
Completing a trio of plum, apple and pear is the wild pear tree. It flowers in mid spring then goes on to produce small-but-perfectly-formed pears, which are often a little more rounded than their cultivated cousins.
Many ornamental hedge species are also edible! Acca sellowiana, whose common name is pineapple guava or guavasteen, thrives in warmer conditions (it hails from South America) and will reward the patient gardener with tasty fruits described as a fusion between strawberry and pineapple.
And don’t forget the quince (Cydonia oblonga), whose fragrant fruits make the perfect companion to apples within a pie. The lower-growing Japanese quince (Chaenomeles species) is also edible, but often considered less tasty.
Planting an Edible Hedge
The best time to plant a hedge is when the plants are dormant – so any time during the winter or, in regions with severe winters, once the ground has thawed in early spring. Start by clearing the ground of weeds then dig over a strip of ground about a metre, or 3 feet wide. Well-rotted compost can be dug into the ground to improve its fertility and get plants off to a flying start.
Fruit bushes can be planted at very close spacings in a hedge, but it’s still really important to avoid planting too densely. Young plants may look sparse to start with, but this is far preferable to planting too close together and having long, drawn out plants that are struggling for light and nutrients. Check with your hedging plant supplier for the spacing they recommend for each species.
Once planted and watered in, a thick mulch of well-rotted manure or compost will help to lock in soil moisture, protect the young roots from extreme temperatures, and keep weeds in check as your new hedge establishes. In dry conditions you may need to water your hedge regularly to help it do so.
I’ve only touched on a few edible species of hedge plant here; there are, of course, lots of other options. So if you’ve got a suggestion for something beautiful, functional and edible, please let me know about it by leaving a comment below.