February: hedging your bets

With cold winds blowing across the country, spells of snow and little food or shelter for birdlife, winter is the time when hedges come into their own. It is also the time when the well-maintained hedge can be easily distinguished from the badly-maintained one!

You see, when the snow weighs down on a hedge and the sides get thrashed by winds, a poor hedge will collapse outwards. This is usually because it has been allowed to become too straggly, or more importantly, it has become top-heavy.

A good hedge will have sides that are sloped inwards towards the top so that when the weight of the snow comes down, there is enough structural strength to maintain its shape. These slightly sloped sides also have another important function: they allow light to the base of the plant in the growing season so the growth is not restricted to the top. If the top part of the plant is the only part getting light, it will become top-heavy and, over time, will collapse

There you go: lessons in architecture and structural engineering when you thought it was just a hedge that needed trimming.

If your hedges are suffering at this time of year then it is probably best to tidy it up as best then plan a proper overhaul at the correct time of year. Many domestic ones can be safely tackled in spring once the frosts are over but do bear in mind that birdlife will may be nesting there - so please choose your moment carefully.

Jobs for the month include:

  • Continue to ensure tree stakes are firmly in and tree ties tight, but not too tight.

  • Tie in any climbers that have worked loose.

  • Lift and divide clumps of snowdrops and winter aconites once they have finished flowering.

  • Prune winter-flowering shrubs whose blooms have faded. These might include Mahonia, Sarcococca and Lonicera fragrantissima.

  • Wistaria can have their second prune: take whippy shoots that were pruned by several buds in June or July, and cut them back by a further two to three buds. This ensures that the flowers will not be obscured by the leaves.

  • Continue to plant bare-root stock, including roses.

  • Dig compost and manure into the borders where you can, without compressing the soil in wet weather

  • There is still time to renovate overgrown deciduous hedges such as beech (Fagus), hawthorn (Crataegus), and hornbeam (Carpinus). They can be reduced by as much as half: be careful not to disturb any long term nests.

  • Keep your bird feeders and all wildlife food topped up.

  • Avoid walking on the lawn in frosty weather as this will damage the grass.

There is plenty to see and admire at this time of year though, admittedly, this is often best done with a mug of hot something when the sun is out on a crisp, frosty morning. Beats sitting inside looking at a screen any day of the week…in my book anyway!