Hedging made easy

Ready-grown hedging is still increasing in popularity despite the downturn, reports Gavin McEwan.

It's probably the closest thing in the plant world to a convenience product, and one certainly appreciated by time-poor homeowners. Instant hedging is now an established niche market in horticulture, with hundreds of miles being grown in British nurseries and even greater quantities being imported from the Continent.

Most suppliers sell direct to both trade and public visitors to their nurseries, looking for everything from individual plants to fill gaps in domestic hedges to corporate commissions for hedging hundreds of metres in length. Recently, there has also been a rise in sales over the internet.

Website www.hedgingandtopiary.co.uk is run by landscaping services company Wreford. Owner and director Simon Wreford says: "A lot of our sales start from the net - we've seen 40 per cent growth there this year. People still want to buy, but there's a lot of competition for run-of-the-mill hedging." He sees online selling as offering buyers greater convenience. "It's not an ideal product for garden centres. People would rather have it brought to their doorstep," he says.

While not a grower, Wreford has a holding nursery for plants sourced from the UK and Europe, he adds. "We often buy in pounds, even from the Continent."

InstaHedge managing director John Harca says that sales via the internet have grown 30 per cent this year, though many customers still want to ask questions over the phone before ordering. "We will provide a site visit and quotation, and also a planting service," he says.

Also, relying on Continental imports, "we have had to tweak our prices" in response to the weak pound, he says. And the wider economic situation may mean that the good times are coming to an end. "Now a lot of small customers are drying up, due to the economy - they're worried what the new year will bring," he says.

"Prestige developers have not been hit, although it's still early days. They tend not to order large volumes, but have particular requirements - the specs tend to be quite high."

Two perhaps surprising drivers of demand are insurers, whose clients often demand instant hedging to repair hedges damaged by vehicles, and planning authorities enforcing undertakings by developers to plant mature hedges rather than whips, he adds.

Deepdale Trees of Bedfordshire sells individual containerised "hedging elements" up to 4m in height, with yew being the most popular. Sales manager Mark Godden says: "We're busier than we've ever been - mostly because of rich private customers."

Green Mile Trees' hedging, by contrast, is field-grown, forming hedges up to 2.5m, and owner Christopher Scott says most of the hedging plants he sells are above 1.75m. "Laurel is our biggest seller," he says. "It grows so quickly, you can have a large screen in no time. And it's cheaper than a wall."

But he also sees the downturn having an impact. "Over the past three to four years times have been pretty good, but now sales have tapered off a bit," he says. "Private customers are sitting on their wallets, and there's not a lot of active newbuilds at the moment."

Practicality Brown supplies instant hedging grown by Elveden, a Norfolk estate. Marketing director Prem Mann is more upbeat: "It's still a growing market, although it's a niche product," he says. "More people are finishing developments with a high-quality product than 12 months ago."

He says that the Elveden product is unusual in that it is grown as integral units, which are then sold by the metre in lengths of up to 10m to create an effect of instant maturity. As well as the traditional species for urban settings, a native mixed hedge is proving popular in the countryside.

Hertford-based Crown Topiary specialises in traditional hedging, popular in large private gardens. Owner Anita Southwell says that by growing its own plants, the company can ensure quality.

"We are unusual - most suppliers buy in from the Continent," she says. "They go for the cheapest and then are surprised when (their hedges) don't grow well."

Box hedging is the company's top seller, although box blight remains a concern. "People need to be hygienic," says Southwell. "Box blight is thought to have come in from Holland and Belgium. There they trim with machines and leave the clippings on the ground."

However, customers are undaunted. "The market is still growing, without doubt," she says. "Inevitably spending will be cut back. But there are still people willing to spend, particularly at the top end of the market. We have now sold out of Buxus, and won't have any until July."

More challenging, she says, has been this year's poor weather, which has meant plants have put on less growth, leading to shortages in larger sizes.

ReadyHedge director Simon Williamson suggests Lonicera nitida, the shrubby honeysuckle, as an alternative to box. "It's ideal for low parterres," he says. "We saw box blight coming and looked for alternatives - although box is still our biggest seller."

The Worcestershire nursery grows 18km of hedging and imports the rest from Belgium. "The strength of the euro has affected us quite a lot," says Williamson. "We probably lost £100,000 due to changes in the exchange rate earlier this year. We have since had to put prices up about 10 per cent, although others have gone up by 17 per cent."

He sees the market evolving as customers demand a higher-spec product. "The one-man-and-a-pickup market has dwindled, but the bigger stuff hasn't been affected," he says. "We saw a massive increase last year, and we're up on that this year."

ReadyHedge provides hedging in 1m troughs as well as 2m-high panels of evergreen oak and Portuguese laurel. In addition, privet "is losing its name as a council house plant", he adds.

Tendercare director Angela Halksworth believes there is still "limitless mileage" for pre-grown hedges. "Establishing a hedge isn't the easiest thing to do for time-poor gardeners," she says.

"For creating privacy and security, you can justify the cost metre-for-metre, compared with a wall. For a 2m stretch of a 1m-high hedge you are looking at £244 - you wouldn't get much more than the bricks for that," explains Halksworth.

She says the containerised format offers customers greater flexibility. "You can buy field-grown hedges, but then you are limited to the time of year. With ours, you can put them in when you need them, so long as the ground isn't frozen - although, like choosing any containerised plant, you need to look for healthy growth up on top."

Aside from standard-format 1m troughs, the Middlesex nursery now offers upright, cuboid specimens up to 3m tall. "People use them as accent plants at the end of a normal hedge or with spaces in between to separate different areas of a garden," says Halksworth.

"They can work as instant design elements, as well as filling a more functional role as screening."

Six of the best

Beech: A traditional favourite and still very popular. Although deciduous, native beech hedging has the advantage of keeping its copper-coloured dead leaves on the branches over winter, which give way to vivid lime-green foliage in spring.

Yew: Popular in stately gardens for centuries, and highly shade-tolerant, though less keen on the wet, says ReadyHedge director Simon Williamson. "There have been some complaints about bronzing of the foliage this year. This is down to all the rain. Yew likes dry warmth, and it will come back."

Laurel: A term that can be used for a dozen different plants, but in hedging refers to the Portuguese laurel, Prunus lusitanica, or the cherry laurel, P. laurocerasus. Both are vigorous evergreens with long waxy leaves, and are ideal for screening.

Thuja: For those wanting a coniferous hedge that can be hard-pruned, this offers a more manageable solution that the notorious leylandii, says InstaHedge's John Harca. "We discourage the sale of leylandii - it's a high-risk plant that will quickly become a large tree. It will also brown at the bottom. Thuja is a better bet."

Box: Another traditional choice, and still popular despite concerns over box blight, an untreatable disease caused by two fungi. Box is mainly sold in sizes of 1m and below, and is well suited to intricate layouts such as knot gardens.

Hornbeam: Similar in appearance to beech, but more reliable. "It's a cure-all," explains ReadyHedge director Simon Williamson. "With beech you always have to replace a few." The company has registered a particularly high demand for panels and screening of this tree, which is native to Britain.

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