Fruit hedges

Psidium littorale or strawberry guava

Psidium littorale or strawberry guava

“Write about fruit hedges.” That was a request that had me thinking but good options are not that easy.

You can plant anything in a row and call it a hedge. If you live in the country and it gets tall, it is then called a shelter belt. If it is a double row it becomes an avenue. A grid-planted orchard with social pretensions is a phalanx. If the hedge is comprised of all the same plants and clipped at least once a year, it is a formal hedge. If it is comprised of different fruiting plants it becomes (drum roll), a contemporary food forest. All the rage in some circles, are food forests.

As the enquiry came from a gardener on a very small town section, I think it likely that she wanted the formality of a smaller hedge combined with the function of an edible crop. There aren’t many candidates for that. The problem is that if you clip hard, you will frequently be trimming off next year’s fruiting stems. Added to that, most fruiting plants thrive best with maximum sun, plenty of air movement and away from root competition. That is pretty much the antithesis of a hedging situation.

The other issue is to consider how many of a particular plant you want. It has to be delicious to warrant having a whole hedge line in one fruit though it is more likely that most people chose on criteria of being edible and tolerant of conditions, rather than hugely delectable.

Ugni molinae or NZ cranberry

Ugni molinae or NZ cranberry

If you live way down south, you could probably hedge gooseberries (a bit prickly) or currants but these are not happy or rewarding crops in the more temperate north. Some swear by Ugni molinae (also known as Myrtus ugni, the NZ cranberry or the Chilean guava). I love the sweet little fruit and think every family garden needs a plant. A plant, singular. But as a hedging option, you would have to keep working hard to have it looking good. It is a bit sparse and twiggy and is prone to infestation from thrips.

The other guava (Psidium littorale, also known as the Chilean guava or the strawberry guava) is probably the single best evergreen, fruiting option we can think of for hedging. It is a lot more forgiving when it comes to clipping and pruning and could be kept to a tidy hedge below 200cm. The problem with it is that you want to grow one (or maybe two – a red one and a yellow one) to feed browsing children, attract kereru which love the fruit, and to make the odd jar of jelly. But few of us would think they are sufficiently delicious to want a whole row of them.

The ubiquitous feijoa

The ubiquitous feijoa

Feijoas, I hear some of you saying. Yes, feijoas make an excellent hedge but if you keep them well clipped you will be cutting off next year’s fruiting stems. These are plants which are best grown with plenty of space, just given the occasional light thinning or pruning and left to their own devices. That is not hedging. When our children were small, we owned a property with a row of four mature feijoas. They ripened in succession so we had fruit for months and the children would head outside with a teaspoon each in their little hands and sit beneath, scooping out the pulp to eat. They also occupied a space that probably measured close to 10 metres by 4 metres. As a productive road boundary planting, they were great. But a hedge, they were not.

If you follow English garden trends, you may have seen step-over espaliers. They appear to be a hot ticket addition. Generally apples or pears, these are beaten into submission by training along wires at knee height. Being deciduous trees, there will be no winter foliage but apparently you can get a worthwhile crop if you manage it right and you can ring your productive garden with these step-overs which therefore function as a type of hedge.

Do we think this is a good idea? Not really. For starters, the fruit is going to be at just the right height for the dog to cock its leg and pee on it. Or the neighbour’s dog, if you don’t have one. It is also a dry climate technique. With the relatively heavy rains most of us experience in the mid north, soil splash is a problem and will spread disease. Good air circulation, full sun and being above the splash zone will reduce problems. We are certainly not rushing into trying step-over espaliers.

In the end, fruit trees are probably most productive and healthy when grown as individual specimens. Fruiting hedges? Not such a practical option, in the greater scheme of things.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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