Hi there! Long time, no blog! It’s been a busy summer around here — school tours at the Farm, cooking demos at the State Fair, some exciting news coming soon for the Homestead Radio Hour, and now the getting-ready for farmer’s market season — not to mention all the sundry regular business of farming…. so, in celebration of all that is Summer, I thought a visit to our new hedgerow would be a nice way to ease back into the Blogworld!
So, what’s a “hedgerow,” anyway? The world conjures up bucolic English country lanes, lined with damsons and sloes, the kinds of thorny shrubbery whose obscure fruits inevitably end up in jellies, wines, or gin. All fine and well, but what’s it got to do with a sunny California fruit ranch?
First, let’s start with a bit of background. Simply and broadly put, a hedgerow is a planting of shrubs, trees, and/or herbaceous plants, for a reason. They’re typically dense, hence the “hedge,” in a linear layout, the “row,” and serve a purpose other than decoration or simple food production. In fact, hedgerows of any description play multiple roles: sure, they’re attractive, and can include plantings of edible and useful shrubs and plants, but their utility goes beyond mere ornamentation.
The earliest known hedgerows date from the Neolithic Age, and were used to enclose fields for growing cereal crops. A hedge would have served as a living fence, marking field boundaries, keeping animals and livestock in or out, even providing defense against attack. On top of that, hedgerows would also provide wood, food, and shelter for for game and wildlife. Their utility kept them in regular use through the centuries, from the Middle Ages to the industrial era, and up to the present day; although barbed wire and modern livestock fencing offer easier and more convenient ways to fence fields, hedgerows are still in use in Great Britain and much of the world. Though many historic hedges in the UK were neglected or destroyed to make way for modern field systems and food production, the hedgerow is making a comeback worldwide as an important element in sustainable agriculture — which brings us to the B H Ranch!
And there, above, is our little hedgerow! Back in the Spring, as part of our Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, we planted three new hedgerows here at the Ranch: one consisting of mostly annuals, and two with different types of perennial shrubs and herbs. Hedgerows are a key element in IPM — they provide food and habitat for beneficials, pollinators, and natural enemies, the “good bugs” that prey on pests. We looked for native and drought-tolerant plants that offer forage year-round for our honeybees, as well as plants that attract and shelter a wide variety of insects and wildlife. And, of course we wanted things that wouldn’t prove too tasty to deer — always a gamble, as the deer around here don’t seem to pay any attention to that list of deer-resistant plants!
In order to not design a deer buffet, we looked for plants that have some kind of built-in defense — a strong smell or taste, rough, scratchy leaves, sharp thorns, or simply a growth habit that can put up with a bit of haphazard pruning by the local herbivores. Sages, lavender, and yarrow (top left), while pleasantly fragrant to us, deter hungry grazers with their strong scents; their showy blooms do double duty as attractants for beneficial insects. One of my new favourites is the rugosa rose (above right): with its fragrant clusters of magenta blossoms and its velvety bright-green leaves, it looks like it would be irresistible to deer. But get too close and you’ll find this beauty is well-armed with fine, sharp thorns on seemingly every surface. The deer did sample a few stems, but that seems to have satisfied their curiosity…
If you’re looking to attract insects, you can’t go wrong with an umbel! This distinctive flower structure is found on dill, wild carrot, onion, and fennel, as seen above, as well as many other plants in the aptly-named family Umbelliferae. The fennel has been a particular success, providing delicious bulbs all winter and an abundance of blooms and seeds through the summer. I had no idea we could grow fennel so easily; now that it has established itself, it just keeps coming back with hardly a bit of tending.
I’m especially excited to have so many new edibles in the hedgerow — not only fennel, but elderberries! And artichokes! Aren’t they beautiful? The elderflowers smelled heavenly — I can’t wait to make a batch of homegrown elderflower wine next Spring…
And the best part about our hedgerow project? Critters love it! Maybe it’s coincidence, but I’m seeing more butterflies, ladybugs, hummingbirds, bumblebees, and insects and pollinators of every description than I ever have before. The free food and comfy habitat is probably part of it, but I’m sure that many of these little guys have always been here — we’re just paying closer attention. The more you look, the more there is to see!
You don’t have to have a farm to plant a hedgerow! For more information on planting for pollinators and beneficials, check out Pollinator Partnership and Farmer Fred Hoffman’s list of plants for beneficials. For hedgerow species that do well in the Foothills, download this handy list from the UC Cooperative Extension. And bring the hedgerow into the backyard with these top picks for beneficial-friendly ornamentals. Happy Hedgerowing!