Dead hedges are the most primitive and ancient form of hedging. They are tremendously effective windbreaks and superbly quick to make, but they are also important wildlife habitat for birds, hedgehogs and other visitors to your garden.
When you use the word hedge, most people envisage a vertical wall of box, privet or laurel, pruned and clipped to perfection to create the illusion of a solid wall of greenery. That’s a modern idea though, as hedging of one sort or another has been about since prehistory. The earliest hedges were probably all about defence, made of sharpened stakes and thorns, but even so their use as boundary markers goes back to the Bronze Age when farmers had to clear the ancient forest to make field systems. These early hedges were “dead hedges” – simple barriers made out of the least usable pieces of timber when an area was cleared.
The short windbreak shown below is made from some old fencing posts rescued from a local dump, but stout lengths of any slow-rotting wood such as alder will do. The stakes are spaced two or three feet apart in a row, and then a second parallel row is hammered in two or three feet behind the first. A few pieces of supple growth such as ash or hazel are woven through the stakes to create rough sides, and if you like you can push smaller timbers through them to make a more defined side. Now you have two very rough hurdles, and into the space between them you can drop felled or rotting timber, hedge cuttings, and any other twiggy or woody garden refuse that you don’t want to shred for the compost bin; very handy for the likes of bramble and ivy!
Over time, the enclosed timber will begin to rot down and the hedge will get shorter, so you simply pile more material on top; that, and replacing any uprights which rot through, is the only maintenance the hedge will need. In terms of ecology it’s very similar to deadfall or an old woodpile, so you can expect to see various wildlife make use of the shelter and food. If you wish you can plant up the sunnier side so that in time it becomes a living hedge, or you can sow some lively climbers like sweet pea to improve its appearance and provide free flowers for the table. Happy hedging.