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How to make a dead hedge

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.

laurel hedge, imageWhen 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!

a new dead hedge, image 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.

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7 Responses to “How to make a dead hedge”

  1. Luis Gaspar says:

    Thanks for this one method of hedging, I did not read about it before and I find it inspiring…for me to do it one day as well.
    Luis Gaspar.

  2. Katy says:

    Very intersting. Might try it,that would be useful if I cut down a Hawthorn (spiky),and put an apple tree and greenhouse in its place.

  3. we live in a very “tidy” area, and our fence is bombarded by testosteron brothers and their footballs ! so I thought I could “let” them hammer in the stakes to make a ball catcher, or a dead hedge. How high could it go ? How many stakes go rotten? On average, how long would it take to do about 100 ft.? normal fence is £400 roughly. thanks for any feed back, yours Cynthia.

    • Andy McKee says:

      First of all, remember that a dead hedge is not a ‘tidy’ object – although it can look nice if you colonise it with climbers.

      For a hedge that long you’d need more people, or to hire a pneumatic post holer. You’d also need a vast amount of material to fill it with, so one that size would take some years to fill unless you accepted material from a woodland project, orchard or similar. 6′ is the usual height limit because the taller it is the firmer the posts have to be driven in.

      How long it lasts depends on what uprights you use, and how deeply you drive them in. As for how long it takes, you’ll have to estimate that based on your equipment and workforce. Your soil type matters too – try putting fence posts through flinty chalk!

  4. Virginia, USA

    We have constructed a hedge 4,900 feet long of rugosa roses and a wild asian pear and used a dead hedge to protect the small seedlings from both 2 legged and 4 legged varmints.

    Much cheaper and more effective than fancy metal fencing to keep deer from destroying our Asian Pears

    • Andy McKee says:

      Impressive! Rosa rugosa works really well, but for readers working on a smaller scale it’s worth mentioning that it is invasive, spreading outwards from the planting site with suckers and with seeds from the hips surviving cool composting and being spread by birds. Make sure you’ve got the means to control it.

  5. Victoria says:

    Thanks for advice found this really useful and started our dead hedge in our woods today -looks great and fairly easy -impressed x

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