Sometimes when driving the back roads of Southwest Michigan, you still see lines of trees or bushes dividing the fields or marching along the borders. Years ago, farmers planted hedge rows not just to mark the boundaries of their land, but also as wind breaks to protect their crops. It was also a shady place to pause when plowing with a team of horses.
Near ditch banks, the tree roots helped keep the soil from eroding. Unfortunately, when farmers needed to earn more money in order for their farms to survive, they expanded their fields by pushing out the hedge rows.
When my husband John and I began organic farming almost forty years ago, we read books by the agrarian writer Louis Broomfield and visited his famous homestead, Malabar Farm near Mansfield, Ohio. Broomfield encouraged farmers to plant hedgerows where beneficial insects and birds could thrive between the shrubbery and trees. He pointed out that the birds would eat certain bugs while the other good insects would multiply and consume harmful critters.
So John and I ordered plants, pulled out our shovels, and started to dig. Over the years, we have experimented with various trees and shrubs.
And although the roots of autumn olive bushes and locust trees offer the extra asset of adding nitrogen to the soil, we have discovered that the fir trees create a denser hedge because they do not lose their lower branches like pines.
Today, miles of hedge rows thread their way across our farm, but each year a few trees die either from drought, frigid winter winds, or when young bucks rub off the bark with their developing antlers. So, in the fall, we drive our tractor and small trailer down to a nursery where we have planted young Douglas fir trees.
Usually, John digs ever other tree, leaving the remaining seedlings to grow until next year, while I load them onto the trailer. John tries to provide each plant with a large enough root ball so that we do not disturb its growth.
When the trailer is full, we rumble across the farm, stopping wherever we need to replace a missing plant. We choose late fall for this activity because most trees are dormant, fall rains will water the transplants, and the coming snow will pack down their roots.
When we began this project years ago, John tilled a narrow strip and we planted the trees about eight feet apart, kept them weeded and in the sandier spots, mulched them. Now, we mow between the smaller trees while the larger ones have shaded out any weeds.
Visitors to our farm often comment about how the mature rows of green pines and firs beautifully frame our hay fields and also the blueberry bog, especially in the fall when the berry plants’ leaves turn red.
We reply that creating a farm is like shaping a piece of sculpture and the hedge rows are a place where art and good agrarian practices thrive.