A Gardening Journal
Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Blizzards & Beech Hedges
- Published: January 30 2015
American beech is fascinating year-round so, on "Geek", I revisit my hedge of this majestic tree regularly. Beech foliage turns tan as warm Summer weather gives way to Winter's chill. But only some of these leaves fall in, well, Fall. The rest remain on the tree's branches all Winter. Happily, most of the branches that beech hedges produce are also those that retain their Fall leaves. (See why, here, in the profile of a beech cousin, hornbeam, whose leaves behave the same way.)
Even more fortunately, the branches of beech hedges that don't retain their Fall foliage are also the ones that are the easiest to access and remove. Even more fortunately, it's that same removal—pruning, in other words—that also enables you to grow what would otherwise be huge free-range trees as a well-groomed hedge a fraction of that size.
Even when seen head-on, my beech hedge retains so much of its Fall foliage that it provides nearly full coverage although Winter has already brought plenty of abusive weather. No matter that still more high winds will pummel the foliage, often while pelting it with sharp ice crystals or loading it up with ice or sticky, heavy snow, this Fall foliage will not be stripped from the branches. Only for a couple of weeks in Spring will be these branches become bare; it's as if the season's new foliage needs to push last season's from the stems in order to emerge.
What's going on in the picture below? The branches at the top of the hedge are bare. Their leaves were singing from a different hymnal entirely: Not only will they not stick around through Winter until Spring, they didn't even remain in place until the end of Fall. These are all branches that began forming comparatively late last season, and they emerged in direct response to last Winter's pruning, from formerly dormant buds just below those cuts. Their leaves were smaller and brightly colorful: yellow and even pink! I first described them when they began appearing last June, as Spring slid into Summer. Let's call them "late" growth.
Branches that weren't pruned that Winter, as well as the portions of branches lower down from the tips of branches that were pruned, had also begun to pruduce new leaves and new branches. But they began emerging several weeks earlier, in the usual rush of early to mid-Spring. Let's call them "early" growth. These leaves were full size and green and, often as not, borne on new branches that were dramatically pendulous.
To make a beech hedge look even better in Winter, then, get rid of the late growth. It hasn't retained any leaves, so doesn't contribute to the hedge's thrilling and eccentric warm-tan Winter leafiness. Removing the late growth also recaptures the hedge's sharp and clean outer surfaces. In the picture below, I've just begun to prune away the late growth at the top of the hedge. When I'm done, the top of the hedge will be flat and clean—and all the boring leafless branches will be gone.
Right off the bat, then, such pruning is a two-fer: It rids the hedge of branches that were, at once, boringly leafless and screwing up the hedge's clean geometry. But, actually, the pruning is at least a three-fer. It is also how the hedge was formed from the get-go, and how its form will continue to be maintained for generations to come.
Plus, by maintaining the trees as a tight, compact, and narrow block, the pruning makes them impervious to Nature's worst. A free-range beech can be toppled by a hurricane, or have major limbs shorn off by a catastrophic ice storm. Despite that their retained foliage and clipped-and-reclipped branches make beech hedges far denser, this "double" vulnerability is vastly outweighed by their much-reduced height and width—which are both the direct result of that clipping and reclipping. No amount of heavy snow or thick ice can break a beech hedge's short branches; it's rare, even, for the most powerful and lengthy Winter storm to be able just to strip away some of the tan foliage.
Pruning beeches, then, provides four-fold benefits: removing late growth, restoring clean lines, shaping the hedge for the long-term, and ensuring imperviousness to even the roughest weather. It's a four-fer.
A beech hedge is a singular synergy of aesthetics, weather-resistance, lucky quirks of leaf-retention, and easy seasonal maintenance. In Winter, it's one of horticulture's most impressive, practical, and moving achievements.
Here's how to grow Fagus grandifolia, whether free-range or as a hedge. Here's a look at the pendulous stems, bearing enormous large green leaves, that Fagus grandifolia produces in Spring. Here's a look at the range of hues—from creamy white to tan—that the Winter foliage of American beech can adopt depending on the tree's exposure to sun or shade the previous Spring and Summer.