At Instant Scenery, we are coming to the close of much of our hedge-trimming work. By now, many of our clients have been tended to, and their hedges are cut back and ready for them to enjoy the coming months in neat, topiary goodness.
However, one species of plant can make hedge-trimming awkward. Brambles! If these take root at the base of a hedge and grow up over time to form a thick stalk, then they compete with the hedge for sunlight and moisture, and dominate the interior of the hedge itself. What that means for me and my team when we come to cut the hedges back is that our efforts are shorter lived than usual as the composition of the hedge is different.
There is an advantage of this however: at this time of year brambles grow a great deal quicker than hornbeam – so in a freshly trimmed hedge the stalks become very easy to spot as they reach out over the level surface of leaves or protrude from the side to lean south toward the sun. This is when the first steps of remedial action can start: we can identify where they are!
My first job when I have to wither the bramble population in a trimmed hedge is to locate and severe the thickest part of the stalks about a foot from the ground. As the hedges have recently been trimmed, finding the base of brambles and where they root from should be possible. I will then pull out any of the bramble I can, or, if it is too thick, it can be left in the hedge where it will come out in the next year’s trimming (gardening is a game of seasons, not hours and days. A green fingered master is someone who knows to view the long game). Of course, I do have to point out that the thorns on a dead bramble stalk are still capable of snaring and cutting you as when they were still alive – they take a long time to rot away and break down.
The next step is to get rid of the remaining stalk and root. Brambles are cunning and resourceful plants: they are capable of regenerating from the root, so a simple cut is not going to eliminate them for long. The root itself will have to perish.
There are two ways of doing this left open to us. Firstly, the simple option is to dig the villain out and have done with it – making sure you remove as much of the root as you can (they can regenerate from below ground). This is the surest way to get rid of it. The second option, and often the only one that is realistically available due to the location of the root in the middle of a hedge or thicket, is to treat the cut stalk with an appropriate weedkiller. Triclopyr or glyphosat are usually suitable for the task in hand, though they have to be administered when the plant is growing (usually from spring through to autumn).
As a conservationist and someone who is interested in natural history, I do dislike removing an entire plant unless it is absolutely necessary. Brambles are tough plants that do add great cover (and food) for birds and small mammals, and they do therefore have uses in the garden that I appreciate. But, like all things in the garden, they do have to be kept in check, and with brambles, an out-of-control specimen becomes a hard enemy to rein in.
And, although it sounds counter-intuitive, the fact that they are so fast growing is actually a good thing for us human beings. For the most part, the slow pace of plant growth tends to pass us by unawares, and we only recognise it when it becomes a problem that can no longer be ignored. However, if you are happy to keep but restrain them in your garden, then the high growth rate of brambles will at least allow you to keep an active eye on them and to keep them cut back at regular intervals.
The question then become one of how best to dispose of the cuttings and any roots you dig out. Brambles are marvellous in that they possess the ability to ‘root-tip,’ where a tip of a stalk that finds its way into soil can form a new root and sprout anew, so just cutting these back and throwing them on the compost heap where they might come into contact with soil might not be the best idea (though if we are talking about the cuttings of stalks and vines then they should die off in short order – it is the root that really needs to be carefully disposed of). The best way is to shred the root, or even to burn it – but do not put the root near soil – it will return!