Yew hedges in the garden

Mohammed said that rain drops were the tears of angels. In the West Country, the angels are always crying and holding up our winter work.

This winter?s project is the cleaning of the banks of the river that runs through part of the garden. It seems to me that they must last have been cleaned 100 years ago, such is their state. In many cases, fallen trees have made dams across the river, and the banks are a tangle of brambles, nettles, ivy, and dead branches. Huxtable with chainsaw, and Alastair on the digger, are assisted by a gang of three women, all heavily armed with bill hooks, slashers, rakes, and the ?silky?, a marvellous curved saw on the end of a 23ft telescopic pole.

It is worth the aching limbs to see the snowdrops, as the jungle of decades is cleared away. An added bonus is the river pools that will now be fishable. The cleared walk beside the river will, we hope, be a great addition to the garden.

Box hedges and balls form a valuable part of the winter structure of our garden, although we trim them much earlier in the year. A good guide is to start clipping on Derby Day, and most importantly when the day is overcast. If the box is clipped in hot sun, the sap is apt to cook and the leaf edges brown, leaving unattractive discoloured patches.

Old hedges should be regenerated with great care in the spring and we have found that cutting a deep ?V? in the centre of the hedge is the best way to start. This lets in the light and new growth comes quickly. Wait until the centre has grown back, and then cut both sides at the same time. Clipped box thrives when fed regularly with blood fish and bone. Many yew hedges protect the garden from winds that sweep up the valley. They are also the bones of the garden, giving it its shape and definition. The glory of this garden is a 200yd yew walk that is like the corridor of a house; leading from it are all the many garden rooms, which are also enclosed by yew hedging.

Yews are the Queen of hedges, cutting the wind, sheltering the plants, and forming a marvellous backdrop to all the planting. Yews need clipping only once a year, preferably in August at the end of its growing season. Although yew foliage is poisonous to horses and cattle, the clippings can be sold and processed to make Taxol, a drug used in the treatment of cancer.

When yew hedges have grown too wide or become shapeless, they can be rejuvenated successfully in the spring. Cut them back to the trunks on one side only. The light forces the dormant buds that lie under the bark into growth. Feed with blood, fish, and bone, and plenty of well rotted manure. I usually allow a couple of years before I repeat the process if necessary on the other side of the hedge.

Through the years I have come to realise how important are these lovely old hedges. Walking through the gardens some years ago with my beloved Jesuit friend, long since dead, I stopped and turning to him said: ? I do love yew?, to which he replied: ?I love you too?.

Next week, In My Garden comes from the Welsh Borders where David Wheeler has a new take on rose pruning, picks a book for the fireside and recalls inspiration from an Italian garden he visited this year.