Neglect and bird poop: how my native hedgerow began

I used to think that our back yard was just too big. At the very end, there is a 10-foot high chain-link fence that separates our yard from the high school field beyond. Each spring, I battled a tangle of tree seedlings, vines, and weeds that sprung up near the fence. I dreamed of creating another English-style border, but I never seemed to get past the initial weed-clearing process.

Neglect

These unwanted plants had free reign in my absence. I spent several years caring for our young children and my ailing parents. I had no time for gardening. When I finally returned to the back yard, it did not resemble the garden I had made years before. Although it was wild, I had to admit that it wasn’t all bad. Self-seeding plants had wandered from their designated places, but had created some lovely new combinations. I tried to be positive and saw the unkempt garden as an opportunity to do something different.

Bird poop

I noticed a lot of bird activity along the back fence that spring — something I had never seen before. The tree seedlings had grown into small trees. I recognized the dreaded European Buckthorn, but I couldn’t identify the other spindly trees. Whatever they were, the birds liked them, so I decided to read up on bird gardening.

I learned that I had multiple Chokecherries and Hawthorn trees. They’re small native trees that provide food for birds: birds may eat the pollinators the visit the flowers in spring, birds feed their chicks moth and butterfly caterpillars that use the trees as host plants, and birds eat the fruit that develops later in the summer. Birds also find shelter in these trees, and make nests in Hawthorns because they are protected from predators by the spikes that grow along the branches.

Blooms on one of the Hawthorn trees growing along our back fence.
Chokecherry flowers on the small trees in one corner of our back yard.

The National Audubon Society’s book The Bird Garden (at Ottawa Public Library) contains an illustration called “The Economical Hedgerow” (page 19). It shows birds sitting on a wire, dropping excrement containing seeds. The seeds germinate, and grow into shrubs and trees that will provide shelter and food for birds. I’m sure that our Chokecherries and Hawthorns were planted by birds sitting on the wires above our back fence! The birds started to plant a hedgerow — and I decided to continue planting it.

Where to begin?

Almost everything I could find on planting hedgerows is from the UK. There, hedgerows have been used for centuries as living fences around fields. Hedgerows mimic natural shrub lands or forest edges. They contain a mix of deciduous and coniferous shrubs and trees that produce fruit, seeds, and nuts. Vines and other flowering plants grow beneath and around the woody plants. Hedgerows in the UK provide vital habitat for birds, small animals, and insects. They also connect with each other, and with remaining woodlands, becoming wildlife corridors. Sadly, many hedgerows in the UK have been ripped out to create larger fields that will accommodate modern agricultural machinery.

Obviously, the hedgerow information from the UK recommends shrubs and trees that aren’t native here in Ottawa. All the bird gardening books stress the importance of native plants for birds. So, what should I plant here in my hedgerow? Thankfully, the Fletcher Wildlife Garden web site, maintained by the Ottawa Field Naturalists, has a page on Creating a hedgerow for wildlife. It includes an overview of hedgerow ecology, and lists native shrubs for hedgerows in sunny or shadier locations. Perfect!

Finding native shrubs for sale

It took a while to find native shrubs and piece together our hedgerow. I started with Pussy Willow, Serviceberry, Elderberry, Gray Dogwood, and Wild Raisin Viburnum. The Pussy Willow provides insects for birds, Serviceberry and Elderberry offer fruit in the summer, and Gray Dogwood and Viburnum bear later fruit for migrating birds.

Pussy Willow shrubs are an important early source of nectar and pollen for bees. They are also a host plant for hundreds of different moths and butterflies; their caterpillars are essential food for baby birds.
These blossom clusters on a Gray Dogwood shrub will later become white berries.

That first winter, I learned that rabbits also enjoy eating native shrubs. Resident Cottontail Rabbits ate the Serviceberries and Viburnums to the ground. To fill in shadier spots in the hedgerow, and the gaps created by rabbits, I later added Purple-flowering Raspberry, Hop tree (for Giant Swallowtail butterflies), American Hazelnut, Wild Plum, Winterberry (male and females), and Nannyberry Viburnum.

The flowers of Purple-flowering Raspberry look like single roses. They’re under-planted with native Violets.

In the Ottawa area, I’ve bought native shrubs from Make it Green Garden Centre, Green Thumb Garden Centre, Ferguson Tree Nursery (Kempville), and Beaux Arbres Native Plants (Bristol Quebec). I bought my Purple-flowering Raspberry further afield at Native Plants in Claremont (north Pickering).

Arranging the hedgerow

That may seem like a lot of shrubs. Hedgerows are often planted densely, so I placed my shrubs about 1 1/2 yards apart. I can always cut some down after the hedgerow fills in if I find it too crowded. With the unexpected rabbit pruning this may take a while. They have to eat too, so I try not to get too annoyed with them.

When I arranged, and re-arranged, the hedgerow, I tried to mix up autumn leaf colours. I also placed the Winterberries front and centre, so we can see them from the house in the winter. Whenever I find Black Raspberry seedlings around the yard, I’ve been moving them to an area of the hedgerow; I’m not sure if I will some day regret creating thorny tangle of brambles. As well, the shrubs beneath the Hawthorne have struggled, so I will move them next year and try Spikenard in their place. Hedgerows should include a few conifers, so I’ll keep this in mind if any other shrubs need to be replaced.

Planting beneath and around the shrubs

I’ve also been planting native ground covers, for part-shade and shade, in the hedgerow. So far, my favourite combination has been Violets and Wild Strawberry, both of which I transplanted from the lawn. These patches are alive with small pollinators in the spring. I’ve also been adding spring woodland plants under the shrubs: Canada Anemone, Canada Columbine, Virginia Waterleaf, Woodland Sunflower, Zigzag Goldenrod, and White Wood Aster are all allowed to spread freely in the hedgerow — as these plants are wont to do.

Canada Anemone flowers. I didn’t see much pollinator activity on them this spring.
Red and yellow Canada Columbine flowers, as well as a pale purple Virginia Waterleaf ‘sparkler’.
A lovely mix of Wild Strawberries and Violets. I think there may be a brownish, hairy Fritillary caterpillar on one of the Violet leaves (centre right).

More, more, more!

Our hedgerow connects with other vines and trees that are already growing along the fence in neighbouring yards to create a natural highway along our block.

There is a saying that “shrubs shrink the yard” and it certainly seems true. While my back yard once seemed too big, I now wish I had room for even more native shrubs. In fact, this summer I created a new hedgerow along one side of our back yard to join up with the hedgerow along the back fence.

The young hedgerow in spring. Once flowering is over, the hedgerow is just a mix of green textures. I planted tall, sun-loving native plants in front of the hedgerow, such as Cup Plant and Ironweed, to add colour in the summer.
In August, the Ironweed and Cup Plant are in bloom in front of an Elderberry shrub. Two Goldfinches are eating Cup Plant seeds.

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