The Hedge of Reason

Hampton Court Palace Kitchen Garden Keeper Vicki Cooke explains the benefits of hedges and what to grow to create an edible hedge

What will you find in the hedge?
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It doesn’t take long for the plant enthusiast to run out of room in the garden. To broaden your horizons, think vertical and make the most of your edges by planting edible hedges.

Hedges are practical boundary markers, they provide safe habitats for birds and insects and can also be very beautiful, but I wanted all of these benefits and the plants to be productive too. With this in mind, a few years ago we planted an experimental 10-metre long hedge in the Kitchen Garden which screens off our composting area. It includes some traditional hedging plants such as crab apples and cherry plums that both have fruits that are useful for making jams and jellies. Also blackthorn, which is usually the first tree to burst into flower in the spring and the berries make that essential winter tipple, sloe gin! Rosa rugosa is also commonly used in hedging but it has the best rosehips for making rosehip syrup and the huge, red hips brighten any area through the summer and autumn. Blackthorn and Rosa rugosa are also notable for their thorns and so can also useful as a deterrent if required.

Exotic hedge plants

We have also been using some more unusual species. The Chilean guava is a small, evergreen shrub that has the most amazingly flavoured berries – so much so that they were apparently the favourite fruit of Queen Victoria and commercial production was set up in Cornwall to supply her with them. They are very sweet, with a strong aroma of strawberries and pineapple.

Another unusual addition is the feijoa, which is a member of the myrtle family and native to Brazil. I have yet to see if they will bear fruit in our climate, but even if we don’t get fruit they will be worth growing for their attractive, silvery, evergreen foliage and for their flowers. Often, edible flowers lack any strong flavour, but these are one of the exceptions. The pale pink petals are one of the sweetest plants I have ever eaten – the closest I can describe it to is like eating floral bubblegum.

Thornless briars, brambles and blackberries

The edible hedge is backed by a fence, of which I am taking full advantage by growing a selection of cultivated blackberries. We have chosen thornless varieties, as no-one likes getting their hands shredded while out brambling and the fruits are much larger and sweeter than their country cousins. They fruit on shoots made the previous year, so each year, we weave all the new shoots through the fence in one direction, while picking the fruits formed on the previous year’s shoots, which were woven last in the opposite direction. Then, when picking is over, we cut all the fruited shoots back to the base of the plant to give space for the following years new shoots to fill this gap. By growing a few varieties that ripen in succession, we have fruits from mid July to early September and the crops can be huge.

Edible hedge

The overall effect is of a loose, rural hedge, with something in flower or fruit from April to December. There is also a mix of evergreens and deciduous to retain some green even in the depths of winter. It is only growing out of a 45cm wide bed and is about 10-metres long so we can prune or train the individual plants depending on their requirements. The aim is to keep it to about 6-foot in height through pruning or laying (half cutting through the main stem and laying it flat). As time goes on we will see whether things earn their place through taste or outgrow their space, but it promises to be a dynamic hedgerow that is practical, pretty and productive. And many of the plants are great food plants for our pollinators, essential for healthy harvests from our kitchen garden.

Edible hedging plants

  • Here’s the full plant list so that you can add a few to your own garden hedge
  • Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis) – fragrant, aromatic leaves used in cooking
  • Feijoa (Acca sellowiana) – edible flowers and pineapple flavoured fruit
  • Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris) – perfect for making jellies
  • Chilean Guava (Ugni molinosa) – fruity berries
  • Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) – vitamin C rich fruits that can be used for making liquors or preserves
  • Sloe or Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) – perfect for flavoured gins. Cultivated Blackberry ‘Waldo’ and ‘Merton Thornless’ (Rubus fruticosus) – for jams and deserts
  • Rose (Rosa rugosa) – for vitamin C rich rose hips
  • Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera ‘Myrobalan’) – perfect for crumbles, jams or homemade wine
  • Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas)- sour cherry tasting fruits for sauce and jams
  • Elaeagnus umbellata – Lycopene rich fruit that can be dried
  • Juneberry (Amelanchier lamarckii) – a good food for wildlife, but can also be made into pies and jam
Vicki Cooke

About Vicki Cooke

After scrambling through some of the various branches of horticulture, Vicki realised that food production was where her heart is (or should that be stomach!). She spent six years growing traditional UK vegetable varieties for seed at Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library. In 2014 she began a new chapter at Hampton Court Palace, recreating a section of the original walled kitchen garden - so she can now grow historic favourites in an historic setting.
Garden Media Guild New Talent Award
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