Beech (Fagus sylvatica) is native to the UK. It is deciduous but when grown as hedging and trimmed annually in August, the leaves will usually be retained in a dry state throughout most of the winter. This enhances its winter appearance and gives value as a year round screen.
Beech is tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions, including well-drained chalk. On heavy clay, however, hornbeam is a better choice.
Position in full sun or partial shade; purple-leaved cultivars keep their leaf colour better in full sun; yellow-leaved cultivars retain their colour better in partial shade.
Beech hedges are not suitable for very cold or exposed areas, or for sites in frost pockets (often found in low-lying sites), where hornbeam is a better choice.
Water freely from spring to autumn to ensure that the hedge doesn’t dry out, especially in the first three years after planting. Regular mulching will also help retain water around the roots of the hedge on drier soils.
As hedges are regularly clipped apply a general fertiliser such as Growmore or blood fish and bone at 50-70g per sq m (2-2½ oz per sq yd).
Planting beech hedges
Hedges are in place for many years so thorough preparation of the soil before planting is essential. See the advice in the profile on hedge planting for more information.
Bare-root transplants are not only cheaper but also usually establish better. Plant during mild weather from October to late winter and space at 45-60cm (18in-2ft).
Pruning and training
Initial pruning and training
If the transplants are well branched avoid cutting them back. Otherwise, for the first two years after planting, concentrate on shortening the longer shoots and just tipping back shorter ones to encourage branching and dense growth without much loss in height.
From the third year onwards, trim the sides of the hedge, aiming for an inverted wedge-shape to ensure that sunlight reaches the top and bottom equally. Aim for a width of about 1m (3¼ft) at the base, tapering upwards to the desired height.
Pruning established hedges
Once established trim regularly in August. Late summer trimming allows the hedge to retain its recent flush of new leaves over the winter in a brown, autumnal state, providing year-round screening. If you are too late for August pruning wait until spring.
To renovate an overgrown beech hedge, cut it back hard in February while still dormant. If the height needs reducing by 50 percent or more, then stagger pruning over two seasons rather than doing it all at once. If the sides need drastic reduction, then do one side and the top in the first year, leaving the other side to the second year. Mulch and feed after renovation, to encourage regrowth.
The easiest way to propagate beech at home is from seed, which should be collected as soon as it is ripe in late autumn. Sow immediately in an outdoor seedbed. To prevent losing the seed to rodents, keep the seed in a refrigerator until late winter and then sow outdoors.