A lesson on hedge laying

Yesterday I spent a third day laying hedges. The three days have each been a year apart, so I have to be reminded of the process and have to relearn my minimal skills. I lay hedges in a field in Sussex courtesy of my friend Robin, who owns the field. Each year he invites friends to come and work in his field. This might seems like an imposition, but it’s a pleasure. It’s a Tolstoyian day of physical work for his friends, who are all ”knowledge workers.” It’s the one day of the year I do physical work with my upper body, and I ache today.

Here’s how you go about hedge laying. John, a local farmer, was our teacher.

The process starts with planting parallel lines of beech, hawthorn, hazel, and rose, the components of a Sussex hedge. You then wait for two or three years for them to grow.

The next step is to trim away the branches that go at right angles to the line. This is nothing more than pruning, although you are never quite sure which branches to cut–and you may cut too many. The man working beside me was chastised by John for overdoing the pruning.

Next comes the pleaching, the hardest part. You must chop into the stem about eight inches from the ground using a billhook to about half way through and then split the stem down the ground. Some of the stems were double and thick or split just above the ground, so it was hard to know where to chop. If you were not careful you could chop the stem right off, and that’s what happened with my first one—like killing my first patient. But I got better after that. The work was both mentally and physically demanding as there were lots of decisions to be made about where to chop, and some of the stems were very resistant. I knelt in the mud and hacked away. I chopped through a very think stem yesterday, causing me remorse.

The next stage is to bang a stake into the ground. We banged them two feet down, using a heavy steel tube. This was physically demanding but fun, and I did many stakes, shouting as I rammed them into the ground.

Then you have to weave the pleahcs, as they are called, through the stakes, which are about two feet apart. With a Kent hedge they are parallel but with a South of England Hedge they criss-cross. Our criss-crossed.

The final stage is to weave long birch branches at the top of the hedge.

We will not know how well we have done until June, when everything will (or will not) have grown. We will see if the hedge is complete or has holes. How lovely that roses are included—for practical more than aesthetic reasons: the sheep and cows don’t like the thorns.



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