How to grow Hornbeam

It’s was a frosty morning here in Lancashire, North West England. Despite the cold I was tempted outside to have a look at the garden and of course to take some pictures of frosted plants. As expected there were lots of frosted seedheads and the duck pond was completely frozen over. At the edge of the pond a some of the plants were lit up by the early morning sunshine.

One of the first things we did when we moved here was to plant a long Hornbeam hedge at the bottom of our garden. We chose Hornbeam for several reasons:

  1. It’s a beautiful tree. Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) has deeply ridged lime green leaves which unfurl in late April, turn mid-green in summer, yellow in autumn and then remain a lovely coppery colour throughout winter.
  2. Hornbeam copes well with our heavy clay soil. It doesn’t grow well where the ground is permanently waterlogged but it does amazingly well with wet ground. It’s very hardy thriving in cold and exposed windy situations.
  3. Garden birds such as thrushes, blackbirds, wrens and finches often choose Hornbeam hedges for nest sites. They’re a good supply of food too. Moth caterpillars feed on Hornbeam leaves and the birds feed on them.

Since then I’ve discovered that it’s also brilliant for cutting for it’s fresh new foliage in spring and is particularly amazing on a sunny winter day when the leaves are backlit by sunlight.

Hornbeam is a deciduous tree which can also be grown as a hedge. 

Like a Beech hedge, Hornbeam often holds onto the leaves throughout winter. Hornbeam leaves are usually darker brown and deeply ridged with serrated edges. When the sun shines through them on a winters day like today they are even more beautiful.

If you want to grow your own hedge, then Hornbeam is available now as bare root plants from all good nurseries or garden centres. Usually they are available throughout the dormant season from mid-autumn until late winter. (October until the end of February.) These bare root young plants are known as whips and are usually sold in bundles of 25 for around £1 each. You can’t plant them when the ground is frozen or waterlogged but any other time throughout autumn and winter is fine.

How to plant a bare root hedge.

All you need to do is make a slit in the ground with your spade and push the roots into the earth. Firm the turf back in place with your feet and plant the next one about 60cm/two feet away. There is no need for a double row despite all the advice to the contrary. Young Hornbeam plants establish quickly and will produce a good hedge in just a few years. As the trees grow they will naturally shade out any grass and unwanted plants (weeds) growing close by without you having to resort to any nasty chemicals.

Most traditional gardening books will advise you to prepare the ground for your new hedge by killing the weeds, digging a strip 60cm/two feet wide and adding plenty of organic matter before planting a double row of young trees. That’s a lot of hard work and completely unnecessary I think, especially if you are planting a long hedge.

How to Prune Hornbeam Hedges

Let your hedge grow to the required height, somewhere around five or six feet /1.5m – 1.8m is perfect for most gardens. Trim the hedge once each year in mid to late summer. (July or August.) You might want to bundle up and save some of the twiggy prunings because they are perfect for use in your borders to support any floppy flowering plants next year.

What’s it like in your garden today? Did you have frost or snow?  Gillian


10 thoughts on “How to grow Hornbeam

  1. That tree and its cultivars are surprisingly rare here. It is something I read about in the 1980s, but did not actually see until about 2005. I might have seen a few about, but did not know what they were. When I saw several of them in formal row in a median of a big boulevard in Morgan Hill, I thought that they might be getting popular. I saw a few more in San Jose, but then never saw new ones installed after that. It would be so much better than some of the trees we grow here.

  2. I LOVE the winter colouring from hornbeam. Our neighbour has half a hedge, just three, but enough to furnish our fence with its rich chestnut leaves. I love their texture too with those deep pleats. They are made for showing off the frost patterns.

    1. I quite agree Ali… absolutely made for frost! It’s lovely when neighbours grow something we like isn’t it?

  3. Gillian the photos are magnificent. Thank you very much for all the information about the Carpinus betulus and especially how to plant it bare root. I was thinking of putting hedge in a corner of the garden with cold air in Winter and I liked this hedge. Also if it feeds the birds better than better. Have a good week. Greetings from Margarita.

    1. Lucky you! I wish we had snow too. Beech and Hornbeam ARE quite similar so it’s easy to mistake one for the other. It’s much easier to identify mature trees than hedges I think.

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