Abustle in your hedgerow

Native shrubs benefit farms and wildlife

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now.
“Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin

If you were tasked to break down the lyrical elements of classic rock, you might forget to include English gardening. But before the explosive final third of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” the melody floats dreamily around like a bee finding a flower, and an Englishman named Robert Plant croons about hedgerows to a flute accompaniment.

Like the lyric, real hedgerows fit in and enliven things without drawing attention to themselves. Hedgerows attract pollinators, capture carbon, and keep invasive weeds and pests at bay. On protected farmlands throughout the county, you will find inspiring people using a planted line of native shrubs to improve growing practices, restore habitat, and summon the naturally occurring resources of the landscape.

And they can be quite pretty.

Driving towards Hedgerow Farms in Winters, a thick hedgerow displays delightful splotches of brilliant Western redbud. Many animals bustle around here, including the California quail who lends its form to the farm’s logo.

Hedgerow Farms sells seeds, grass transplants, and straw. They provide consulting services on restoration, re-vegetation, pollinator plots, and hedgerows. When Solano Land Trust needs to purchase seeds, we get them from here. When seed is collected on Land Trust properties, Hedgerow Farms can develop them into grass plugs that can be replanted later.

Restoring native flora

The farm was founded in the 1980s by the late John Anderson. A primatologist by training and a polymath from the evidence, John pivoted to a second career after seeing how hedgerows surrounded properties in the Kenyan highlands and how managed hunting lands utilized them in England. On the farm he and his wife Marsha shared, John began seeding native plants, and a passion for restoration and endemic plants took root. John would go on to distinguish himself as one of the premiere advocates for California’s native grasses, and an expert on the subject.

In a special memorial issue of the California Native Grasslands Association’s Grasslands newsletter, contributors called his farm the University of Hedgerow Farms, because of the wide-ranging informal research that goes on there, as well as formal research by UC Davis.
John also hated weeds.

Planting native grasses is one way to trap weed growth. When I visited the grass production fields, Farm Manager Jeff Quiter showed pristine rows of Creeping wild rye grass.

“A good native plant will outcompete all the weeds,” Jeff says. A few areas of one row were blackened from a recent controlled burn. Native grasses are no stranger to fire and the burned grasses produce better seeds.

Nearby, in hedgerows full of coyote brush and toyon, Jeff points out the bare, unvegetated patches that naturally form within hedges. The native bees and other insects that pollinate plants throughout the property require bare patches like these, which invasive grasses and weeds would cover.
At a canal south of the property, rows of deergrass dangle Tiki hut-like strands over a streambank, and the roots of the plant halt erosion. Behind it, trees make a windbreak to protect the farm’s topsoil. Shaggy shrubs huddle below.

Harnessing the land’s hidden powers

John co-authored Establishing Hedgerows on Farms in California with Rachel Freeman Long. Rachel is Farm Advisor for Field Crops and Pest Management through the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. She brings her expertise in entomology to her work.
“Hedgerows of native California flowering shrubs bring in bees and natural enemies that move into adjacent crops where they help pollinate crops and control pests,” Rachel says.

These “natural enemies,” such as parasitoid wasps, are friends to farmers.

“Parasitoid wasps are key players in helping to control pests on farms, like aphids, stinkbugs, and caterpillar pests,” Rachel says. “The larvae of parasitoid wasps feed on pests. Adults sting hosts, lay an egg inside their body, and the larvae consumes the host. Planting flowering shrubs adjacent to crops attracts parasitoid wasps that control pests in adjacent crops, resulting in reduced insecticide use.”

If this process sounds gruesome, planters shouldn’t be squeamish.

“You probably won’t notice them because they’re microscopic,” Rachel says. “Look for mummified aphids with tiny holes in them. That’s your clue that the wasps are active.”

Farmers concerned that hedgerows could provide habitat for mammalian pests can mostly rest easy.

“Hedgerows are too small on a larger landscape scale to drive rodent populations like voles, ground squirrels, and mice. The only exception is cottontail rabbits that can thrive in hedgerow cover.”

Home projects

For those looking to plant a hedgerow, Rachel recommends drought tolerant natives: redbud, California lilac (Ceanothus), Cleveland sage, elderberry, coffeeberry, toyon, coyote brush, California buckwheat, flannel bush, and manzanita.

“Another less permanent option is to plant annual flowering plants, like dill or toothpick weed (Ammi visnaga) for summertime nectar sources for bees and natural enemies.”

The next time you drive past a field, remember the shrubs along the edges are not afterthoughts. Hedgerows are places where the needs of agriculture and the natural benefits of the ecosystem work in harmony.

So harmoniously, in fact, that someone could write a song about it.

For those looking wishing to learn more about hedgerows, native grasses, and sedges, look forward to the open house at Hedgerow Farms on April 29th.