Imagine a beautiful summer day in your backyard. You’ve prepared a picnic to eat outside and enjoy the lovely weather, maybe a delicious salad or a sandwich and some lemonade. Instead of packing yourself a dessert, however, you finish your lunch and go over to the edge of your garden, where you pluck luscious, sun-ripened berries right from the bush to pop into your mouth. Welcome to life with an edible hedge!
In the United States today, the most common type of hedge is a simple privacy hedge. These usually consist of just one or two species of shrub, often pruned and clipped into something more resembling a box than a bush. Depending on the kind of shrub and how well they’re tended, privacy hedges provide varying degrees of privacy and look attractive in a formal landscape, but aren’t good for much else.
Traditional hedgerows, on the other hand, incorporated multiple different species of shrub, flower, tree, and grass and was useful in multiple ways. A traditional hedge could be used to provide privacy or to confine some species of livestock. It could serve as a windbreak, a haven for beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife, and a source of edible and medicinal plants.
Traditional hedgerows were most often found on farms and other places with a lot of land, but you can recreate them on a smaller scale in your own backyard, by planting an edible hedge. A well planned edible hedge will add beauty and interest to your garden while also providing a source of delicious and natural fruits, berries, nuts, and more.
Designing Your Edible Hedge From Scratch
The easiest way to create an edible hedge is to start from scratch.
Edible hedges should include a mix of edible plants, “insectary” plants (plants that attract beneficial insects), and plants chosen for their beauty. Many plants will fulfill at least two of these functions, and some will even fulfill all three.
When deciding which plants you want in your edible hedge, here are some considerations:
Should your edible hedge be a mix of trees and shrubs, or shrubs-only?
Depending on the size of your property, you may or may not want to include trees in your hedge. Full size fruit and nut trees can overwhelm a small lot. However, there are many dwarf fruit tree varieties and small understory trees such as dogwood and crabapple that can make excellent additions to an edible hedge. If you want your edible hedge to double as a windbreak in order to lower your winter heating bills, be sure to include some conifers and other evergreens as well.
In a smaller yard, it is probably best to use flowering and fruiting shrubs as the tallest plants in your hedge. There are dozens of excellent shrub choices for an edible hedge in the United States, including blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, serviceberry, hazelnut, elderberry, chokecherry, aronia, Nanking cherry, wild plum, gooseberry, currant, shrub roses, viburnums, and more.
What other plants should you include in your edible hedge?
In addition to trees and shrubs, it is a good idea to plant some native wildflowers along the edges of your hedge. Wildflowers such as purple coneflower, New England aster, and bee balm are not only beautiful, many are also good insectary plants and will attract plenty of pollinators, which can increase the productivity of your edible plants by as much as 30%. You can also mix in some of your favorite ornamental flowers, to add even more beauty.
Adding a mix of native ornamental grasses provides cover and food for birds and other wildlife, and is especially important for anyone hoping to attract grassland birds such as pheasants or quail. For example, native prairie grasses such as little bluestem provide nutritious seeds for wildlife and striking fall color for gardeners.
Plant a mix of annual and perennial vegetables and other crops such as sunflowers, tomatoes, and squash on the sunny side of your edible hedge. The hedge will create a warm, protected micro-climate for them, extending your growing season.
Herbs are an especially good choice to plant in your edible hedge because most are multi-purpose: they are edible, beautiful, and they attract pollinators who will also visit nearby vegetables and fruits. Some of the best include basil, thyme, sage, and dill.
Finally, consider adding groundcovers such as strawberries and white clover (a nitrogen-fixing legume that improves the health of nearby plants). Groundcovers act like living mulches, shading out weeds and keeping the soil cool and moist.
Mulch your new hedge heavily to reduce weeding and watering needs while it becomes established. Replant annuals as necessary every year, and every 5-10 years, thin the hedge strategically so that it remains diverse and productive. Prune as necessary to keep the neighbors happy.
Converting an Existing Hedge To an Edible Hedge
Converting an existing hedge is a little harder than starting from scratch, but it can be done.
Keep the same design considerations in mind as if you were starting from scratch, but instead of just going in and starting to plant, strategically thin your existing hedge to create gaps and edges where you can start putting in edible shrubs, trees, and herbaceous plants. A good goal is to convert a single row into two or three staggered rows of plants to encourage maximum productivity.
In order to reduce disturbance to the roots of the remaining established plants, don’t till the area you plan to plant. Instead dig individual holes for each new plant, and mulch heavily to reduce weeds. (Laying down a layer of newspaper or cardboard under the mulch is a biodegradable way to kill turf grasses or other unwanted plants.) Once you’ve planted and mulched your hedge, maintain it in the same way as a new hedge started from scratch.
Most importantly, enjoy!