WHEN I PLANTED a strip of horsetail-infested bank with native shrubs and trees, I didn't know I was making a hedgerow. I was trying to turn an eyesore into a place for birds, bees and butterflies, with plants that would out-compete, or at least hide, the weeds.
Turns out such living fences are a venerable aspect of the European rural landscape. Hedgerows are newly popular here, promoted by local conservation districts for their ecological benefits. Because hedgerows use a variety of native plants, they provide greater structural diversity and richer habitat than the more commonly used evergreen hedge or stand of conifers. While ornamentals can be added to the hedgerow mix, they don't attract and support as many insects, birds and mammals as plants that have evolved along with our native fauna.
We think of hedgerows as dense thickets of trees and shrubs outlining streams and roads or stretching across fields. That's what they look like from the outside. Inside, hedgerows are abundant biodiversity corridors, sheltering and feeding creatures from butterfly larvae to soaring raptors. The little hedgerow at the back of my property was a mere 5-foot strip along a fence line, yet it buffered us from neighbors while nurturing so many birds and bees that it fairly pulsed with buzz, song and flight. Perhaps the idea of creating a wildlife-friendly corridor is even more essential in paved-over cities and sprayed-over suburbs than it is for the countryside that has a little bit of wildness left.
To visually entice gardeners and farmers to consider hedgerows, King Conservation District recently commissioned a poster-sized field guide from local Good Nature Publishing Co. To capture the essence of hedgerows, Montreal artist Suzanne Duranceau shot six rolls of film at Ebey's Landing on Whidbey Island and Tolt-McDonald Park near Carnation. Her composite painting is a lovely hybrid of locations featuring more than 25 species of native flora and fauna found in or near Puget Sound hedgerows. With deer and ladybugs, cattails and wild roses, the poster illustrates a hedgerow separating farmland from wetland.
In such agrarian settings, hedgerows divide fields, keeping farm animals in and wild animals out. They create a food web for insects and creatures. Hedgerows planted along waterways and wetlands protect salmon by keeping the destructive hoofs and waste of horses, cows and sheep away from shorelines. Water quality is improved for everyone in the region when hedgerows are planted as buffers between streams and farmlands.
While keeping livestock out of the creek isn't a daily concern of the urbanista, hedgerows are equally suited to smaller properties. Perhaps you'd like to nurture wildlife or plant a privacy fence rather than build one. If plants are correctly chosen for existing conditions, hedgerows are drought tolerant once established and need little or no maintenance.
Brandy Reed of the King Conservation District suggests putting hedgerow plants in the ground quite close together, so they weave and tangle tightly in only a few years. Though most hedgerow plants are deciduous, they will grow in thickly enough to form a visual barrier even in winter, with bright twigs of shrubby dogwood and hips from the native Nootka rose to carry the show after the leaves have fallen.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
King Conservation District recommends these native species, all growing in the demonstration hedgerow at Tolt-McDonald Park:
For a dry site: Our native flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and Oregon grape (Mahonia species)
For damp soil: Black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) and the red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea)
Good for every hedgerow: The Nootka rose and common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)
You can see an established, small-scale demonstration hedgerow composed of recommended native species at Tolt-McDonald Park near Carnation. Only 5 to 8 feet wide and topping out at 10 to 12 feet high, it's an example of an easy-care hedgerow ideal for habitat and privacy on properties large and small.
The Tolt-McDonald Park is at 31020 N.E. 40th St., off Highway 503 near Carnation. For more information on hedgerow programs for landowners call the King Conservation District at 425-277-5581 or use the search option for "hedgerows" at www.kingcd.org.