Be A Better Gardener: A trans-Atlantic translation

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By Thomas Christopher

For Capital Region Independent Media

A traditional English countryside hedge separating a road from farmers’ fields. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Annabel Renwick admits it is odd, having been raised and educated in England, to find herself in charge of the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants in Durham, North Carolina.

She is an enthusiastic transplant, though, and has been ever since she faced down the heat when she disembarked with her family from an airplane in 2008. This doesn’t mean, though, that she doesn’t find some of what she brought with her useful.

One thing that still amazes Dr. Renwick is the richness of nature that she has encountered in her new home. There are, she notes, more than 4,000 distinct species of plants native to North Carolina, versus something like 1,500 to 1,600 native to all of Great Britain.

Nor can she remember seeing a garden in England devoted entirely to the native flora. Indeed, she adds, place of origin was not a consideration in plant selection when she was studying design at the English Gardening School in London. Before that, however, she had completed a doctorate in grassland plant communities at the University of Wales, which has made her keenly aware of preserving the living ingredients of local ecosystems.

She was “blown away,” she told me, by her first visit to the Blomquist Garden, a division of Duke University’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens as a new immigrant. Annabel volunteered to work there and eventually graduated to the role of curator.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is Annabel’s enthusiasm for the wildlife and flora of the American Southeast that has led her to attempt introducing a classic British landscape feature, the hedgerow, into her new home.

Hedgerows were ubiquitous in the north of England, where she grew up. Planted, in many cases, centuries ago, the hedgerows, informally maintained mixes of shrubs and low trees, originally served as a means for farmers to enclose their fields, keeping livestock in or out, and marking boundaries. They also served as sources of wood and wild fruits for the rural population, and refuges for wildlife.

In this last role, the hedgerows are essential. The number of species of plants and animals that may inhabit one of these linear habitats may number in the thousands, and they function as travel corridors for birds, bats and other creatures.

Why couldn’t hedgerows, appropriately translated, play a similar role in her new home, Annabel wondered? A couple of years before the pandemic, she purchased whips, small saplings 18 inches tall or less, of native shrubs and small trees, and she began planting them close-set, a foot apart, in a staggered pattern between the side of a road and a fence in the Blomquist Garden. She intermingled nut and fruit bearing shrubs such as American hazel (Coylus americanus), American plum (Prunus americana), high bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), and Carolina cherry-laurel (Prunus caroliniana) with wild roses (Rosa carolina), arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), and red chokeberry (Photinia pyrifolia). She punctuated this woody mass with taller Washington hawthorns (Crataegus phaenopyrum) and hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and wove it all together with vines of native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens).

After letting all the young plants establish themselves for a couple of years, she cut them back to a height of 6-8 inches, to force out low branches and ensure that the informal wall that the shrubs and trees form extends all the way to the ground.

This hedgerow serves an ecological function, providing fruits and seeds for birds and other wildlife, foliage for native caterpillars and nectar and pollen for pollinators. It also contributes to the architecture of the garden, furnishing a screen and a natural barrier.

Besides, adds Annabel, it’s beautiful. In the spring there are the flowers of the shrubs, trees and honeysuckle. In summer, there is the varied tapestry of foliage. And in the fall, there are the autumn leaf colors.

Annabel invites gardeners down to the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants (gardens.duke.edu/) to view her native hedgerow, as well as the pocket prairie, carnivorous plant collection and other attractions.

To listen to the rest of our conversation and learn more about the history and ecology of hedgerows, log onto the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Growing Greener podcast at berkshirebotanical.org.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Nature into Art and The Gardens of Wave Hill (Timber Press, 2019). He is the 2021 Garden Club of America’s National Medalist for Literature, a distinction reserved to recognize those who have left a profound and lasting impact on issues that are most important to the GCA. Christopher’s companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener, streams on WESUFM.org, Pacifica Radio and NPR and is available at berkshirebotanical.org/growinggreener.

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