How to Plant an Edible Hedge
Whether you have one thousand acres or one quarter of an acre, planting an edible hedge offers many benefits to you, to wildlife and livestock, and to the environment.
An edible hedge is a hedgerow designed to produce food for human consumption. In addition to providing inexpensive and nutritious food for your family, edible hedges can:
- provide privacy
- reduce heating bills and protect sensitive livestock by serving as a windbreak
- extend the growing season by creating a protected microclimate for tender plants
- reinforce fences, or even act as fences by themselves
- reduce agricultural and stormwater runoff
- reduce erosion
- provide food and habitat for beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife
- serve as a wildlife corridor
- provide fodder for livestock
- and more!
Planning Your Edible Hedge
Edible hedges typically incorporate a variety of plants including trees, shrubs, vegetables, herbs, wildflowers, grasses, and groundcovers.
Depending on the size of your property, you may or may not want to include trees in your hedge. Large fruit and nut trees can overwhelm a small lot. However, there are many dwarf fruit tree varieties and small understory trees such as dogwood and crabapple that can make excellent additions to an edible hedge, even in a small yard. If you have the space for large mast-producing trees, a few of the best choices include native oaks, hickories, and pecans and non-native standard fruit trees such as domestic apples and pears.
The most common plants in most hedges are shrubs. There are dozens of great native and non-native mast-producing shrubs that are good choices for an edible hedge, including blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, serviceberry, hazelnut, elderberry, chokecherry, aronia, wild cherry, wild plum, gooseberry, currant, shrub roses, and viburnums.
In addition to edible trees and shrubs, incorporate a mix of favorite herbs, annual and perennial vegetables, native wildflowers, ornamental grasses, and groundcovers into your edible hedge.
Each plant should contribute one or more functions to the hedge. For an edible hedge, the most important function is edibility. Choose primarily plants that produce edible fruits, nuts, seeds, berries, leaves, roots, or other parts.
However, food production should not be the only function of the plants in your hedge. For example, the amount of food produced by your hedge can be increased by 30% or more if you incorporate plants that attract pollinators and other beneficial insects. These types of plants are often known as “insectary plants.” Another useful type of plant for your hedge is nitrogen-fixing plants. Nitrogen-fixing plants such as clover and other legumes improve the health of nearby plants and can reduce or completely eliminate the need for synthetic fertilizers. Finally, groundcovers and other “living mulches” keep the soil cool and moist and reduce the need for watering, as well as improving habitat for earthworms and other healthy soil fauna.
Depending on the secondary purposes of your edible hedge, you may want to choose plants that provide other functions as well, such as dense shrubs for privacy or wind protection, or the host plant for a favorite species of butterfly.
Planting an Edible Hedge From Scratch
Whenever possible, choose a spot to plant your hedge with enough room for at least two staggered rows of plants. If you plan to use chemical pesticides or herbicides nearby, add an uncultivated grassy area up to several yards wide on either side of the hedge, if possible. The grassy buffer will help protect plants and beneficial insects in the hedge from chemical drift.
Mulch your new hedge heavily to reduce weeding and watering needs while it becomes established.
Converting an Existing Hedge
If you already have a hedge that you want to convert to an edible hedge, thin it strategically and start planting edible shrubs, trees, and herbaceous plants in the gaps and edges. A good goal is to convert a single row into two or three staggered rows of plants to encourage maximum productivity.
In order to reduce disturbance to the roots of the remaining established plants, don’t till the area you plan to plant. Instead dig individual holes for each new plant, and mulch heavily to reduce weeds. Laying down a layer of newspaper or cardboard under the mulch is a biodegradable way to kill turf grasses or other unwanted plants.