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January Heralds Hazel Hedge Laying in the Garden

We had an absolutely glorious sunshiny day in the Community Forest Garden last Friday. As we sat weeding the leaf-shaped bed at the top of the slope, looking out on the beautiful view of fields bathed in sunlight - which glinted off many pools of rainwater - we remarked how nice it felt to be outside with the warm sun on our faces and connecting with the earth and each other again!

Less than a week later, and we're waking up to frost on the ground. The puddles and pools of runoff are now frozen mini lakes - in stark contrast to that unseasonably warm January day last week. But unexpected weather is now to be expected. Abnormal is the new normal... For years now, I've noticed the weather becoming more erratic and I'm used to people telling me things like "the weather isn't normally like this at this time;" or"those shouldn't still be flowering," or "the catkins shouldn't be out yet," but it is, and they were and they are... So, I suppose growing is going to become more of a challenge as this pattern continues, both for the plants and the gardeners, and we will all have to adapt and do our best.

After a morning spent soaking up the sun, we all ventured down to the very bottom of the slope to tend to the laid hazel hedge that marks the bottom border of the garden.

Hedge laying is a craft that has been practiced for centuries, in which a line of shrubs or small trees are partially cut near the base and whittled down until they can be bent over without breaking them. Leaving just enough of the outer bark layer to allow them to stay alive, the bent stems are then carefully laid down and woven together. New shoots will then spring up from the level we’ve cut and bent the hazel to, which will eventually form the next laid level in a few years’ time.

Hedge laying was originally a way to create a stock-proof fence to contain animals before fences were commonplace, but there are other benefits to creating a laid hedge. It reduces the height of the hazel withies, so that plenty of sunlight will get to the bottom veg beds once they grow leaves again. It thickens the base of the hedge, which divides our sanctuary from the road, and it allows us to harvest some of the hazel for cuttings and other uses around the garden. It also helps prevent soil erosion, which will keep our veg beds in place and full of nutrients. Plus, it provides a habitat and protection for many small creatures from hedgehogs and birds to insects and worms.

I had a go at wielding a sharp axe for the first time and we’ve laid a good few feet of the hedge already. It's quite physical work, but the weaving part is creative and very satisfying, especially when you step back and see what you’ve achieved. There is still a lot of hedge left if you want to come and have a go yourself? I'll be in the garden again this Friday and you are welcome to join me. Just get in touch below…

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