Ne’er cast a clout till may be out!
This old English proverb is simply advising us not to switch to our summer wardrobe too early in the year – and to wait until the Hawthorn (May tree) is flowering. Advice worth heeding for gardeners too I believe, when deciding when to plant out tender plants and considering when all risk of frost has passed. Nature has an uncanny way of knowing these things.
So, you’re thinking of planting a hedge and you want it not only for yourself but also for future generations to enjoy; something that is pretty as well as functional that will be around for a very long time; something that the birds and bees will thank you for… Then a Hawthorn and Blackthorn mix has to be one to consider.
In England, particularly at this time of year you can’t but notice the Hawthorn. The name ‘Haw’ derives from ‘hage’ which is Old English for ‘hedge’. The tree which flowers in mid to late spring is traditionally known as the May Tree, the blossom itself being called May.
One reason why it’s so widespread is because Hawthorn hedging was planted across England in the Parliamentary Enclosure period, between 1750 and 1850. It remains to this day extremely common in the countryside, some maintained by farmers but others left to grow to full size. The tangle of branches are ideal for birds to build their nests, the flowers vital nectar for bees and its fruit (called haws) an important food source for all sorts of wildlife through the winter months.
Blackthorn (Prunus Spinosa)
Blackthorn is another type of tree ideal for hedging that is widespread across the English countryside. Its long thorns have made it popular with farmers for centuries as the perfect barrier for keeping their livestock contained. Again, a huge attraction to birds and bees, the Blackthorn hedge produces beautiful white flowers in the early spring, followed by Sloe berries that ripen in October. A native species, the Blackthorn hedge plant has profuse white flowers on bare black stems in April, followed by small, dark green leaves on the spiny stems and blue sloes in autumn.
Blackthorn and Hawthorn make good bedfellows and they are often used in tandem to create a mixed hedge. Blackthorn blossoms in early spring (on bare branches, before the leaves appear) and Hawthorn flowers slightly later on (after leafing), so between them they offer an extended and impressive flowering period. In addition, both can be propagated from cuttings, making a low cost and wildlife-friendly hedging option.
How to propagate
Both can be grown from seed but taking cuttings is quicker and relatively easy:
- Cut several four to six inch softwood stems from a healthy Hawthorn or Blackthorn tree. Softwood stems are young stems that are tender but mature enough to break with a cracking sound when bent. Use a sharp, clean knife to make each cut just below a node.
- Strip the leaves from the lower half of the cuttings and dip the bottom inch into a rooting hormone.
- Fill a pot with some gritty cutting compost and moisten but not saturate.
- Poke planting holes into the compost and insert the cuttings. You can plant several in the same container as long as the leaves don’t touch.
- Cover the container with a clear plastic bag. Seal the bag tightly around the pot with a rubber band. The bag keeps the cuttings moist and warm.
- Place the container where the cuttings are exposed to indirect light and mist the potting mixture as needed to keep it damp but never drenched. Rooting times vary greatly, but they’ll usually take root in a few weeks
- Check the cuttings for roots after two to three months. Remove a cutting from the potting mixture with a table knife or spoon and replant if the roots aren’t at least half an inch long.
- When they’re ready (the roots are one to two inches long), re-pot the cuttings into individual three to four inch containers filled with a general purpose potting mixture.
- Again cover each container with a plastic bag but this time poke several holes in the bags. Leave the covers on the pots for about a week, as this gives the cuttings time to gradually adjust to the cooler, drier air.
- Move the young trees outdoors in spring, placing them in a protected location away from extreme temperatures and bright sunlight (see picture).
- Mulch the trees with straw during the winter and move them to their permanent home after two growing seasons.
Finally, both Hawthorn and Blackthorn are quite slow growing but the end result is worth the wait and your hedge will be around for up to a hundred years!
Go on – hedge your bets, I reckon you’ll be glad you did.