The Shelter Belt Catch-22
During my daily (weather permitting) garden perambulation I always have a careful look at my shelter belts and depending on my mood I either sigh, weep or rant and rave. Today is windy but we have sunshine and so my shrubs got a smile of encouragement.
When we first arrived one of our initial tasks was to plant a double row of small Escallonia down the path to the house. Nothing wrong with the species or its origin (grown in Orkney) but we’d not appreciated the poverty of the soil, the ravages of the rabbits or the strength of the wind. As we had compounded our problems by planting in the autumn it is not surprising that our first attempt at growing a shelter belt had failed. We had encountered to shelter belt catch-22: you need a shelter belt to grow plants in an exposed garden, but without shelter your shelter belt won’t grow.
So the following spring we excavated all the sand to a depth of at least 30 cm, added a compost and seaweed and built small wooden protective fences. We replanted with more Escallonia, New Zealand Holly (Olearia macrodonta) and Brachyglottis all grown from cuttings from a friend’s garden. By the autumn the plants were well established and I was feeling optimistic. Then we had an unusually cold winter – very little snow but weeks of subzero temperatures. Unfortunately the cold came before the plants had become dormant, so we lost all the Olearia and at least 50% of the rest!
Ok time to get serious. We’d grown some Olearia traversii and O.macrodonta from cuttings and Sea Buckthorn from seed which had been potted up and wintered in the outer part of the polytunnel. These were used as replacements and we bought another 200 O. traversii and a 100 Escallonia from a commercial nursery, increased the height of the fences and made offerings to the weather gods. I was even prepared for subzero temperatures but I could do little about the succession of Atlantic depressions that brought us frequent gales of 70-90 mph.
At present the situation is delicately balanced – the larger Olearia have a 45% list but are shooting as are the Escallonia. I’ve lost some plants (literally blown out of the ground) and some are not showing any signs of life yet. So I’m feeling quietly optimistic but anxious incase they’re shooting too early.
So have I solved the shelter belt dilemma? My solution is a form of compromise – the low wooden fences provide some wind protection while the plants get established, I have reduced the planting distance to an absolute minimum and I’m using a mixture of species (hedging my bets?). Over time the big plants should protect the small plants which are used to replace the winter casualties. Ideally my fences should all be at least I m tall, but I’m reluctant to increase the height because of the cost and also the aesthetics – at times I feel my garden looks like a stockade, especially in the winter when there is no greenery to soften the edges. Wind proof netting is an alternative, but it’s difficult to secure and it only comes in a particularly unpleasant green colour. I have used it in my fruit cages and along short stretches of my stock fencing but it I’m not very happy with it.
So we will review the situation in May and replant as necessary from last seasons rooted cuttings and young plants. I’ll also be taking more cuttings this summer and sowing more seeds – just incase!