Common beech (Fagus sylvatica) is one of the most majestic of European native trees, yet also makes an excellent formal hedge as it tolerates regular clipping. Although deciduous, beech is still good to use as a screening hedge as growth is dense, twiggy, and the dead leaves usually remain on the branches for much of the winter, often until the new leaves appear in spring. There are both green and purple-leaved varieties of common beech which are suitable for hedging. The purple-leaved form (Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea’ is commonly known as copper beech. To grow as individual trees, the common beech species becomes too big for all but the largest gardens, but there are columnar (fastigiate) and weeping forms of beech that are much more compact in size.
Beech leaves are 5-10cm long, oval in shape with a slightly pointed tip, and wavy edges. Young leaves are a light and intense bright green in colour when first opening in spring, with a covering of silky hairs. As the growing season progresses the leaves mature to dark green, turning yellow to orange-brown in autumn. Mature trees also bear tiny green flowers in spring followed in autumn by small, brownish bristly-cased capsules that encase tiny nuts known as ‘beech mast’.
As individual trees, the green-leaved beech Fagus sylvatica is largest-growing, reaching a mature height of at least 25m and forming a wide-spreading densely branched canopy with a minimum spread of 15m. Columnar varieties of beech are narrow and pyramidal in shape, while weeping varieties of beech attain a relatively low height and form a broad head of pendulous branches.
As a traditional hedge furnished with growth to ground level, beech can be clipped to a height from around 1.2m upwards. Growth is moderate to quick-growing at 30-60cm a year. Beech is also suitable to grow as a pleached hedge with a clear stem of 1-1.5m and with branches trained on a framework up to around 3-4m high.
How to grow beech
Ideally, buy and plant beech during the dormant season, although pot grown beech can be planted at any time of year. Grow in any reasonable soil that has good drainage, in sun or part shade. Prune hedges in late winter to early spring, and trim in late summer if necessary to maintain a neat shape.
Where to grow Fagus sylvatica
Beech grows on a wide range of soils as long as the drainage is good. Avoid sites with moisture-retentive or waterlogged soil, coastal locations and hot, dry situations.
Grow green-leaved beech in sun or partial shade. Purple beech colours best in sun, while yellow-leaved forms are better in partial shade as full sun may scorch the foliage.
Note that if grown as a standard tree, beech is difficult to underplant as the root system is shallow and the dense canopy of foliage lets very little light through.
How to plant beech
Ideally, buy and plant beech during the dormant season, from November to March. This is the time when bare-root plants are available – these are cheaper than pot grown plants and come without plastic pots.
To grow beech as a hedge, space plants from 25-45cm apart, depending on plant size and how quickly you want to achieve a dense hedge. For quick results, plant in a double staggered row with 30cm between the two rows.
Plant into well-cultivated weed-free ground, at the same depth as the plant was growing previously. Firm the soil well and water to settle soil around the roots.
During the first growing season, water beech during dry spells, giving a thorough watering twice a week.
How to prune Fagus sylvatica
Prune and shape beech hedges in late summer to maintain a neat shape for winter. One cut per year is usually sufficient, although any straggly growth can be tidied up in midsummer with a light trim.
Established hedges that need hard pruning should be tacked in late winter to early spring. Prune overgrown hedges on the top and one side only, allowing one or two years to pass before hard pruning the remaining side.
Growing beech: problem solving
Several pests occur on beech though they rarely cause harm and control isn’t required. These include woolly beech aphid which is pale yellow covered with a white ‘fluff’, and beech scale which is visible as a white or grey waxy powder on the trunk and branches.
Advice on buying beech
- Beech is available in an extensive range of sizes and prices. For hedging, plants start at around 30cm in height, going up to around 1.8-2m high. Bare-rooted plants are sold in bundles of 10. The most expensive way to buy hedging is as ready-grown and clipped ‘instant’ hedging, though this does give immediate screening
- Beech trees are also available either container grown (year-round), bare rooted or root balled (only whilst dormant)
- Buying bare rooted beech from November to March is the easiest way to buy beech online, as plants are lightweight, easy to package, and transport easily. Pot grown beech are supplied by courier or on pallets and are more expensive