A Gardening Journal

American Beech grown as a hedge

 

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Beeches and hornbeams are unique in hardy hedges.  They look merely dignified in the Summer, but out-and-out astonishing in the Winter.  They glow in the sunlight.  In Fall, the Summer-green foliage turns pigskin brown.  To see low Winter sun streaming through a beech hedge is a translucent delight.

 

A hedge of American beech is the most astonishing of them all.  The leaves of American beech are several times the size of those of hornbeams or European beech and, when pruned as a hedge, just as twiggy.  Same amount of twigs but with bigger leaves?  More foliage area overall, so American Beeches can "translusce" more sunlight than the others.  

 

Even more astonishing is that beech and hornbeam hedges retain their Fall foliage until Spring.  It's as if the Fall foliage doesn't fall off at all—it's pushed off by the emerging Spring leaves. 

 

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No matter what side you look at, no what time of the year, a beech hedge gives full privacy.  Thank goodness:  My beech hedge is helping hide my brush pile.

 

 

Here's how to grow this sturdy and all-season native tree:

 

Latin Name

Fagus grandifolia

Common Name

American Beech grown as a hedge

Family

Fagaceae, the Beech family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous tree.

Hardiness

Zones 3 - 9

Habit

Broadly upright, with a thick and short trunk that begins producing massive limbs only a few feet above ground.  Nearly as wide as tall, and unless limbed up, full to the ground when growing in full sun.  Surprisingly shade-tolerant, and usually found in Nature in mixed forests, in which case it's even taller but much narrower, and usually with a tall trunk because the lower limbs have been shaded out.

Rate of Growth

Medium; faster than European beeches, though.

Size in ten years

Twelve to fifteen feet tall, eight to twelve feet wide.  In a couple of generations, an immense tree from 60 to 120 feet tall and almost as wide.

Texture

Growing free-range, the texture is loose but muscular.  Beech foliage is never dense enough to obscure the trunk or the branches, so there's a full range of visual interest top to bottom.   When pruned, the twigs and therefore the foliage become much denser, creating walls of foliage that provide complete screening. 

Grown for

its foliage:  The pointed oval leaves have a serrated edge, and are several times as large as those of European beeches.  For those familiar only with European beeches, the "giant-leafed" beech is a startling discovery.  As with European beeches, foliage that's lower to the ground as well as closer to the main trunk is retained through early Spring even though in Fall it turns from green to a characteristic pigskin fleshy-tan and, later in Winter, a dramatic parchment-white.  The old leaves hold on, seemingly, until pushed off the twigs by the next generation of leaves in Spring.

 

its habit: Beech trees are the embodiment of arboreal gravitas.  Their thick trunks, heavy limbs, wide-spreading habit, and overall massive size bring automatic majesty to any landscape large enough to accommodate them. 

 

its versatility:  Although American beech has none of the flashy cultivars of the European beeches, it is every bit its equal in terms of prunability.  Thanks to beech's strong and heavy wood, beech hedges are unrivaled in their solidity and imperviousness to wind or ice damage.  Their strength also makes architectural flourishes like arches and tunnels structurally sound.  And they can be grown to almost any height, from waist-high to as high as you can prune.  The tallest beech hedge in the world is in England; it was planted in 1745 and is now one hundred feet high.

 

its bark: Beech bark is pale gray and looks as if it is thin and tightly-applied to the wood beneath.  Coupled with the thick trunk and heavy limbs, the effect is distinctly muscular.

 

its vigor: American beech is far more tolerant of both cold and heat than the European beech.  In the eastern United States, European beeches are only at their best from Boston to Washington, DC.  American beeches thrive from Nova Scotia to Texas and north Florida.

Flowering season

Spring, although the flowers aren't showy.  The nuts that follow are eaten by a host of animals, including man.

Color combinations

Fagus grandifolia is only interested in contributing green to the warm-weather landscape, and an unusual pigskin fleshy tan in Winter.  The bark is light gray year-round.  The tree, then, goes with any other color you might add.

Partner plants

Growing free-range in full sun and with enough space to spread at will, Fagus grandifolia permits no underplantings at all.  As is typical for beeches, its roots are quite shallow and its low branches bring enough shade that, between the roots and the shade, only bare dirt or mulch can survive. 

 

The tree is so large at maturity that it's outside the scale of horticulture at which "companion plants" seem relevant.  But if your beech is helping you organize a couple of acres of land, you could partner it with as long a line-up of giant arborvitae, Thuja plicata, as you can muster.  Plant the beech at least a hundred feet from the Thuja; two hundred if you've got the room.  About the only other partner that would be in scale with the beech, and yet of different enough habit and detail that it wouldn't look like just another rival in the competition for the most monster horticulture ever, would be a grove of sequoias.  As with the arborvitae hedge, plant the sequoias as far away as you can; no partnering gesture is worth doing if, a century and more down the road, it would be crowding the beech.  In my book, at least, a beech is always the first among equals.

Where to use it in your garden

Fagus grandifolia becomes a massive tree when it has the opportunity.  Don't plant it if you don't have that half acre or more to devote exclusively to its greater majesty.  Remember, long after you're compost, the American beech you planted could have become eighty or even a hundred feet across.  Plant for how the tree will look two generations after you're dead and forgotten, not for how it will look during your life.

 

Another strategy entirely is to plant beech trees as a hedge, in which case it can be a part of even a compact garden as long as it gets full sun.   

Culture

Any decent soil in full sun.  European beeches are finicky in their requirement of good drainage.  The rule of thumb is Never Plant on Level Ground, which ensures that surface water never sticks around for long.  American beeches are less dogmatic about drainage, but there's never a downside to providing it.  When planting as a hedge, get an advance on your hedge's eventual height by planting atop a low mound three or four feet wide and six or eight inches high at the center, where the line of beeches would be planted.

How to handle it: The Basics

Plant Fagus grandifolia only in Spring.  Although in its native haunts the tree is often a part of mixed forests, and so grows in considerable shade, you'll normally be wanting to grow the tree as a free-range monster-to-be or as a hedge.  In either of those cases, full sun is a must.

 

For free-range specimens, as long as the site has even a tiny bit of slope, and the soil is acceptable, you can plant with confidence.  Beeches are shallow-rooted, so there's no need to worry about soil that's particularly deep.  Water the first season or two, especially if there's Summer drought.  After that, beeches in otherwise congenial surroundings are self-reliant through anything but epic drought.  If, though, your soil is lean or your location is regularly droughty—as would be the case, for example, if you'd like to grow a beech hedge in the city, where there can be a lot of radiant heat from nearby masonry and the soil can be of questionable depth and nutrition—hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, looks and behaves like beeches, but is more drought-tolerant. 

 

Pruning isn't normally needed for free-range trees.  Just let the tree grow at will. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

Beeches make peerless hedges, which are comfortable and attractive in gardens of any size, even those that are quite compact. 

 

Plant as small plants as you can find—growing in one-gallon containers is preferred—in Spring.  Plant in full sun as close together as you can afford.  Although a spacing of eighteen inches is traditional,a foot apart isn't too tight.  Let grow the rest of the first year.  The second Spring, cut all the plants down to six inches.  Be strong and don't falter.  Let grow the rest of the season.  The third Spring, cut all the second-year growth back by half; cut any growth that was fairly vertical back by three-quarters.  The goal of this early pruning is to help the trees make plenty of ground-level branches; skimpy ankles are the hallmark of beech hedges where the owners worried about quick height, not fullness at the bottom.

 

Thereafter, prune the hedge in August.  It will grow a late-Summer crop of twigs, whose foliage is particularly gifted at remaining on the tree until Spring.

 

The tan Winter foliage of beech hedges is unique in its translucence in low Winter light.  If at all possible, plant a beech hedge to the south or the west of where you can comfortably view it in the afternoon in the Winter. 

 

If you're blessed with an old beech hedge that needs a severe pruning, don't do it all at once.  Space the pruning over three years, and do it only in the Spring.  The first Spring, prune one face as far back as you need; the second Spring, the top.  If the face you pruned hard the first year has recovered enough, you can revert to pruning it in August from then on.  In the third Spring, hard-prune the second face.  By this third year, you should be able to revert to the normal August pruning of the first face and the top.  By the fourth year, the other face should be able to revert to the normal August pruning, too.  Don't let your beech hedge get out of hand again!

Quirks or special cases

If your property already has a mature beech, show respect by mulching what will otherwise be the bare dirt around it.  This will also make it easier to limit foot traffic under the canopy, too.  Beeches' shallow roots, so invincible in youth, welcome some consideration in old age.  Water deeply twice a month during severe drought, too.

 

It's not unusual for beeches to be multi-trunked.  Multi-trunked trees are always at greater risk for wind and ice damage, because the limbs and foliage of any one trunk are mostly just to the outside, creating substantial cantilevering leverage.  It's better to be safe than sorry, and get the trunks cabled together.  Do not attempt to reduce the number of trunks through pruning.  This will only open up a huge scar and, potentially, expose the heart of the tree to even more rot than is, usually, happening already from the tight crotches of the multi-trunking, which nearly always collect water.

 

Beeches are particularly at home within earshot of water, so to speak.  While they don't tolerate wet feet or planting on flat ground by water, they seem to be especially generous when growing in normal soil, with excellent drainage, that's close to water, be it fresh or salty.  For a beech, heaven probably looks like a huge meadow gently sloping down to open ocean.  Despite their shallow roots, beeches are quite storm-worthy, even in exposed locations.  They fail from old age or from internal rot, the bugbear of multi-trunked beeches, loosing massive limbs or even, as in the case with a multi-trunker, an entire section.  But trees are rarely uprooted whole-hog. 

 

Low beech limbs on older trees can sometimes ease their way to the ground, where they gradually root.  These additional roots seem to rejuvenate the limb, which often sprouts at youthful speed and vigor into a subsidiary but full-sized tree known as an outrigger.  Outriggers are to be welcomed; they're the sign of, on the one hand, a venerable tree, and on the other, generous owners who appreciate that, with beeches, more is more.

Downsides

Beeches can get a variety of bugs and diseases, but aren't normally thought of as being at risk for anything.  In other words, beeches that are growing in optimal conditions are normally resistant.  I've planted beeches for many years, and my only failures have been where there was less than impeccable drainage.     

 

Beech hedges don't tolerate all-at-once renovations, as you could do without a second thought for hedges of privet, yew, or holly.  Hornbeam hedges, though, will tolerate radical downsizing of the top and both faces at once. 

Variants

Unlike its European beech cousin—with dozens of dramatically diverse cultivars and more, it seems, appearing yearly—American beech already knows the song it wants to sing and is uninterested in expanding its repertoire.  There are no cultivars with colorful foliage; weeping, upright, contorted, or dwarf habit; or unusually-shaped leaves.  Although they don't look different, the populations of the Deep South are usually recognized as less hardy than those of the North, whereas the Northern populations are recognized as less heat-tolerant than the Southern.  American beeches are one tree where it really pays to buy stock that's local, or at least regional.

Availability

On-line and, only occasionally, at retailers; European beech is much more available, because of its numerous colorful-leaved cultivars.

Propagation

By seed. 

Native habitat

Fagus grandifolia is native to eastern North America, from southern Ontario to Nova Scotia all the way south to Texas and north Florida.

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