A Gardening Journal
Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Beech Hedge in the Mail
- Published: June 17 2015
Seeds shipped from abroad? Potted plants shipped transcontinentally? No problem. Above, though, something remarkable: two sheaves of bare-root and very young American beech saplings. Even so, they were shipped by regular mail from the Midwest; apparently, there wasn't a rush.
The quirks and talents of Fagus grandifolia draw my attention time and again. When mature, this species is one of this continent's most massive native trees. But youngsters are also happy to be trained permanently into hedging—in which case the trees retain their Fall foliage until Spring, just before the new leaves renew the hedge's ability to provide screening.
As a soloist, an American beech tree is a monster. But when grown en masse in a line—as a hedge, in other words—beeches need to be planted unusually close together to form a tight hedge. Holly, arborvitae, privet? Planting three or four feet apart is fine. For beech, two feet apart is a maximum; a foot, the ideal. So it takes a lot of trees for a beech hedge. But few nurseries stock Fagus grandifolia at all; the ever-increasing number of flashy cultivars of European beech, Fagus sylvatica, dominate the market.
Even those sources that do stock American beech aren't likely to have it in quantity—let alone in sizes small enough for the best hedges. Regardless, given that the spacing of best-practice beech hedging is one tree per foot, the cost of potted stock could become prohibitive. What would the shipping alone be for hundreds of beeches in one-gallon pots from a major mail-order nursery such as, say, Forest Farm? And who would want to risk ordering hundreds of potted plants from a source of lesser caliber, even if at substantially lesser expense?
So it's extraordinary good fortune, literally, that young Fagus grandifolia can be shipped bare-root. And that vendors can keep them dormant while bare root almost indefinitely: I ordered mine long past the time when my own hedge of American beech had fully leafed out this Spring, and yet they still arrived fully dormant. Given the potential numbers of trees needed for long runs of hedge, it was mightily encouraging that my source's website gave various levels of quantity discounts, including one for orders of five hundred trees and more of a given size. It's likely that they ship many thousands of trees a year.
It's equally fortunate that, with beech hedges, it's best to plant small stock. I could have ordered "bare roots" in sizes up to four-to-five-feet tall, but chose these one-to-two footers instead. Why? The second year after planting, the young trees should be cut back by half so that they form low branches. Even with a brutal cut-back, those four-to-five footers are never likely to branch low enough; there's truly no gain in planting anything but beeches that are young, short, and—thanks to their quirk at tolerating bare-root handling—comparatively economical.
And so, my "hedge in a box" was tiny: A box six inches square, two feet long and, seemingly, too light to contain anything. Yet there it was: a hundred feet of hedge-to-be, weighing less than a pound. Hastily unpacking, I found a slim plastic bag holding the two sheaves of saplings that had, at most, shared a half cup of barely moist peat moss. I set the sheaves in a bucket of water overnight; then—the crush of June gardening being what it was—stuck them in a nursery pot with a few handsful of moist potting soil. Kept in the shade so they wouldn't dry out while I raced to handle other June tasks, the've still begun to leaf out.
In my experience, young American beeches succeed or fail on their success, apparently, at establishing soil-based symbiosis with necessary fungi or bacteria. If potted in store-bought soil, or even in garden beds that are so heavily amended (even with organic compost) that there is little native soil remaining, youngsters often fail to leaf out, and usually die by their second year despite being provided with the other necessities: faithful watering the first year, good drainage, full sun, and a sharp contrast between Summer and Winter. European beeches don't show such sensitivity, which is another reason that they lend themselves for use as hedges and also specimens.
If you have the location for your hedge of American beech already cleared, and its native soil dug and unamended, you could plant youngsters like these directly in the ground. I think it's better to wait until individual trees have begun to leaf out—and then plant each ASAP—rather than planting dormant trees one after another. Inevitably, some of those will not succeed, so your hedge will have gaps, or you'll need to fill in later.
My shipment of American beeches will form blocks of beech hedging at two different clients—and neither site is quite ready for planting. So these little saplings will be potted up and grown through the Summer for planting in Fall. Why not simply order these dormant beeches for planting in the Fall? That's possible, but risky. American beech is even hardier than European, so just on that basis would likely survive the Winter. But beeches form new feeder roots Spring into Summer, not Fall into Winter so, for three to five months, bare-root trees planted in Fall wouldn't root-in at all. The trees would be challenged just to remain in place during months of rough Winter weather; they'd also struggle to absorb just the minimal water need to save even a dormant plant from fatal dessication. So it's either pot up this Spring, then plant out in Fall, or lose an entire year.
Potting up this Spring it will be—but with what soil? As above, literal potting soil would be fatal. Instead, I'll gently harvest native soil from the base of my own Fagus grandifolia hedge. Planted in native soil, it could hardy be more vigorous. Presumably thriving as well—and by untold millions—are whatever the soil microbiota are that I suspect are the make-or-break partners with the trees' roots. When I establish American beech hedges elsewhere, then, it will be with this innoculatory assistance from my own.
Here's how to grow Fagus grandifolia, whether free-range or as a hedge.
Here's how luscious the Spring foliage of a hedge of Fagus grandifolia is.
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.
Here's how handsome a beech hedge looks even in the depths of a hard Winter.
Here's that same hedge, after its mid-Winter pruning.