Carpinus Diem

Situated on top of a hill, with spectacular and far-reaching views of the countryside all around, we find it important to keep our boundaries as open as possible to welcome in those views, while still breaking the fierce south-westerlies that whip across us, and keeping curious cows from our crops and borders. Our situation means that our fledgling garden is simply laid out, with a central lawn flanked by herbaceous borders and the kitchen garden beyond. There are trees in our borders; a mature beech, birch and horse chestnut, hawthorn and holly, and some wild plums. We have kept the boundary fences that we need to protect us from foraging cattle open, and added native hedging to fill in gaps in the hawthorn at the bottom and to replace the bloated lonicera nitida hedge that sprawled along the field boundary. These trees and hedges should provide a good mix of shelter and interest, for us and local wildlife, while still embracing the landscape beyond.

Garden, field border November 2011

Not for us, then, any element of intrigue and adventure with a garden revealing itself to you step by step; no subdivided garden rooms, or secret paths to lead you from one tableau to the next. Our garden is too modest in size to employ such devices and still sit well in the landscape, and so we have laid the garden bare to anyone approaching from the house, and borrowed the hills behind to nestle among the hedges and trees.

We are both pleased with the bones of this garden that we are starting to draw together now from the initial chaos. The open lawn should prove family-friendly in the future, and hopefully the borders, while simply laid out, will hold sufficient interest along with the edible delights of the kitchen garden and greenhouse beyond, to captivate us as much as the majestic countryside around.

The approach to our garden, though, is another matter entirely, with something of an elephant in the corner. Still; every problem is an opportunity for a solution, as trilled gaily by the world of marketing, and there is certainly opportunity here for prolonging the ‘reveal’ to create a sense of anticipation. ย To explain further; as things stand at the moment, as you walk around the path at the side of our house, a low wooden post and rail fence at your side separates you from the adjoining pasture that runs down the hill away from you into wooded valleys below. Ahead, you catch your first glimpse of our modest garden, and if first impressions count then currently you’d be turning around and walking back, as the first sight to greet you is our utility area. A couple of fixed structures stand here, including our cycle store. In dark green they are not quite eyesores, and thankfully nothing stands much higher than four foot tall, but neither are they a natural part of the landscape or in any way a visual feast, and they certainly don’t issue much invitation to the visitor to continue around and explore further.

Moving the structures is not an option, despite their sub-optimal placement, which leaves us with the choice of screening them in such a way that the visitor is drawn onwards around the house until the garden is finally revealed. Elaborate planting schemes and living fences have flirted in and out of our minds over the months as we have concentrated on establishing the main structure of the garden. A traditional hedge or shrub would take up too much of the limited corner space and squeeze the path. And then, in the spring, we stumbled upon an idea that captivated us and has continued to whisper to us through the summer. (Janet, I think you may suspect where this is leading…!).

carpinus japonica hedge, graduate gardeners, garden for life at Malvern Spring Show 2011

It was a hedge at the Malvern spring show, in the award-winning Garden For Life created by Graduate Gardeners that entranced us and held us spellbound. Hornbeams were woven along criss-crossed bamboo supports, trained laterally to create a screen that was tall but not deep. Not the hedge on stilts that many people associate with pleaching, as branches provided even coverage from the ground to the top; not just any hornbeam either, the vivid leaves were more serrated than those of Carpinus betula, and the most attractive fresh green hop-shaped catkins hung like ornaments from the branches. We were so taken by this spectacle that I chased down one of the custodians of the garden to ask about the hedge, to be told that it was “hop hornbeam”. Research revealed that several varieties (and indeed species!) seem to share this common name; I later found a program for the show garden that listed the hedge as composed of Carpinus japonica, Japanese hornbeam.

And thus was born our most ambitious scheme yet: to recreate this hedge to shield our unsightly utility area with a beautiful screen that would in winter perhaps revert to a woven tapestry of branches, while in spring and summer it would be amply clothed in the most attractive green foliage, at times adorned with vivid catkins.

Detail from Carpinus japonica hedge, graduate gardeners, garden for life at Malvern Spring Show 2011

This project raised several immediate questions; particularly sourcing the plants and building the framework to train them on. I have spent hours researching pleaching methods, studying the snapshots we took of the Malvern hedge, contacting its designers and looking for elusive stock. Sadly, though perhaps understandably, I was unable to elicit any information about the training of the hedge we saw. However, in theory, with a sturdy framework in place, I believe that we should be able to employ the methods for traditional pleaching, tying in branches laterally and rubbing out shoots that grow in the wrong directions, though extending this to the very lowest branches rather than starting at head height and clearing the lower stems as for the more common stilt-pleaching. I have found mention of training some branches along diagonals as well as the usual horizontal framework of branches, but this part of our plan seems not to be well documented so we will have to find our own way – hopefully just a matter of adding diagonal supports and more tying-in.

As to the question of support: how do we best provide a framework for training trees in this manner? This is still an ongoing debate for us, although one which we need to resolve in the next week or so. A metal framework would have greater longevity, bamboo and timber battens would be more economic, coppiced hazel or chestnut the most visually and environmentally pleasing. The debate continues.

And so to the most important aspect; sourcing the plants themselves. It was relatively simple to trace the suppliers for the show hedge, and they were able to supply Carpinus japonica plants, but only part-trained, the lower metre and a half of their stems already cleared and thus not suitable for our needs. There are other suppliers of specimen plants, but again these are small trees that have already established their shapes and would not have the flexibility we require. Although a much admired tree (I found an article in which Monty Don praised its qualities) there were few suppliers of maiden whips that we could buy young enough and in sufficient quantity for our purposes, but eventually and triumphantly I found a source. It appears that Carpinus japonica is used in bonsai culture, and I found a French company who stocked young plants in sets of 10, which were very reasonably priced too even with shipping.

opening shipment of carpinus japonica saplings in winter

Thus it is that this week we took delivery of a large cardboard box filled with Carpinus japonica saplings, all in plastic pots and well wrapped in damp pages of le Progrรจs before being sent on their way. They arrived in good condition, their potting medium still damp and the stems intact. Each plant is between 20-30cm tall, most with tiny green shoots as well as the remnants of this year’s leaves scattered among them, and they are now standing proudly by the house; our own small forest of Japanese hornbeam awaiting planting.

carpinus japonica saplings in winter

An ambitious project indeed, but hopefully one which will bring us great pleasure in the future, as well as addressing a practical issue. King of the Hill is already planning a space behind the screen for wheelbarrows and other homeless odds and ends to keep out of sight, while still leaving access to these and our bikes. We are hoping to build our framework in the next couple of weeks, and plant the saplings before this mild weather breaks and the ground becomes too hard to work. Time for us to make some decisions on frames and spacings – any advice on these?


25 thoughts on “Carpinus Diem

  1. We have a hornbeam hedge to screen out our neighbours. It was planted at slightly less than a metre spacings and is now about a metre thick from front to back. It retains its leaves, shedding them gradually over the winter, but only if you maintain it as a juvenile and not letting the plants grow into trees. This means clipping the tops out every September when we also trim the hedge. The same applies to beech. The new growth in spring comes just as the last leaves are dropped.

    • Thanks for this information. We planted a double staggered row of beech saplings along our front garden last winter to make a more traditional hedge, they are planted quite closely (1-2 feet apart). For this screen though, since we will be training it laterally and removing outward growth to minimise its depth – a metre deep would be too much! – I’m aware that we’ll be restricting these plants, each of which wants to be a tree, which suggests greater spacing. I think 2m spacing is suggested for traditional pleaching, though we are considering closer than this.

  2. Oh Sara, how wonderful, what a great project! I love the way you nestle your garden in the landscape without trying to shut it out, and this seems wonderfully in keeping. I am almost bouncing up and down on my chair, I shall watch with huge interest. If it is even half as wonderful as the Malvern hedge it will be a feature to be proud of, not just a screening of an eye-sore.

    As to what you use as a supporting framework, my only thought is that since it will be on show for a few years while those lovely new plants establish, it needs to be both robust and attractive, which to me says hazel. Good luck! And thanks for the link…

    • Thanks Janet. I remembered that you were as taken with the Malvern hedge as we were, and I may be consulting your photos again as well as ours as we plot our framework. I’m glad that you like the idea too! If it is half as wonderful as the Malvern one then we shall be thrilled. I am excited just to have the plants; their leaves, those catkins, mmm ๐Ÿ™‚

      I agree about hazel, it is my preferred option. Just have to find somewhere that sells coppiced hazel in suitable diameter and length, without crazy logistics. Local would be good, but quick websearch suggests that most places are in the south of England, or possibly a hop over the border to Gloucestershire. Hmmm.

  3. Looks like a really exciting project especially as you will see it grow from scratch rather than being ready made. I’m planning a more traditional pleached ‘hedge’, albeit quite a short one, from Tilia cordata ‘Winter Orange’. I can’t afford the ready pleached versions so will have do it all myself – a bit daunting! Phil

    • I’m really excited about it. So much more satisfying to shape them from nothing – so I keep telling my impatient self :). Your pleached ‘hedgelet’ sounds lovely too, will look lovely glowing in the winter sun.
      Daunting indeed, although once you start I think (hope!) it is much more intuitive than expected, and there isn’t *much* that can go wrong. We were quite apprehensive about espalier training when we planted our apple whips, then we went on an espalier pruning course which filled us with confidence which made all the difference. I think the hardest thing is the support structure (especially in our windswept location) – though it appears that ready-pleached trees are trained on minimalist bamboo frames, in which case we are probably about to over-engineer ours :).

  4. This pleached hornbeam carpinus japonicum project sounds interesting. I guess the tree of bonsai cultivation is well behaved in height. I’ m surprised the designers weren’t happy to tell you their recipe. Mean indeed. Good luck and I look forward to seeing images of it take off

    • Thanks, I hope to post updates as it develops! C. japonica will grow to a big tree, about 12-15m untamed, so a little less vigorous than standard C. betulus but will need keeping in check.
      Guess the designers have better things to do than share their secrets, they didn’t say they wouldn’t, just never responded to my questions/attempts at contact.

  5. Sounds very ambitious. Sorry, but I can’t offer any advice about hedge-growing. Most of my garden is contained with larch-lap fencing and brick wall! ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

  6. Haven’t seen that Malvern hedge before, Sara. Very beautiful and I can see why you were so taken with it. No specific advice I’m afraid, except to say that I grew a hornbeam hedge in my old garden. Due to space constraints (squished between a wall and a path) it was only about two foot deep – in places perhaps a little less. Not pleached just planted in the usual hedge manner and trimmed annually. Sadly I have no photos to hand but in four or five years it romped away.

    Well done on hunting down the C. japonica, Sherlock!


    • Thanks Watson. ๐Ÿ™‚ it’s a lovely hedge, hope we can recreate some of its magic. Hornbeam seems pretty forgiving of most training/pruning schemes.

  7. No wonder you were excited with your delivery Sara. Great deal of investigation gone in here and quite a challenge of pleaching ahead. Will be much more than an eye-sore screen with those beautiful leaves and dangly hop-type flowers. And you’ll be planting just in time for the Jubilee!! (so have linked you in to my post)
    p.s. the family friendly lawn is a nice touch ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. What a great project and you will have to be patient to see the result but it will definately be something to be proud of in the future.

  9. I love living divisions in gardens and I can really see the attraction of the hedge you saw. The RHS had a similar hedge but of a different species in one of the trail gardens at Wisely. I’m sure they will have information and be happy to share it. I hope the roots haven’t been bonsai-ed. Christina

    • The roots appear untouched, the plants are just young seedlings and hopefully perfect for our use! I haven’t spotted a similar hedge at Wisley on my visits, will have to keep my eyes peeled next time. Thanks for the tip.

  10. We have always grown white beam trees. I think they will make a great hedge! We planted a hawthorn hedge in a similar situation ( a lot of wind and exposed) it was very difficult to weed around them but also very important that the young plants don’t have too much competition. Good luck with the project. It will be interesting to see it progress, Sara.

    • We toyed with the idea of hornbeam for our front hedge last winter but used beech instead. We weed them by hand and they seem to be settling in okay. The challenge with this hedge will be the support structure and lateral training of branches along it, as we want all the growth to be along the hedge to minimise depth.

  11. Pingback: Hornbeams and Trampolines « Hillwards

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