Plant your windbreak hedges as soon as you can, and they will be an asset in themselves as well as protecting your more salt-sensitive plants.
For non-living windbreaks, see also article Artificial Windbreaks.
The problem: wind and salt
Salt-laden winds can take their toll at any time of year, and our gardens need all-year round protection. The right hedge can make a huge difference to the plants which it shelters and must be very tough and frost-hardy.
The advantages of a living windbreak
A living hedge looks less obtrusive. It will provide much-needed shelter for birds, mammals and insects. It can be used to tidy up' less attractive views. Although it will take more time and effort in the first few years, the end result will be very much better-looking than synthetic screens and will be better anchored.
Points to consider
It is essential that the hedge is tough enough to withstand the battering which it'll get. If frosts or easterly winds are a possibility then only fully hardy species should be considered.
Growing hedges need plenty of space and if you have a small garden you need to bear this in mind. Some species will need regular cutting. Some (like Privet) will create a fairly large area of barren ground around them.
Tall hedges will cause a problem of shading, particularly in winter: deciduous hedges let more light in but won't shelter so efficiently. There are other questions to consider. Will the hedge become `leggy'? if so you'll have to plant another low-growing windbreak with it. Will it become invasive, and start tramping all over your garden? If poisonous, will it be accessible to grazing stock? Be sure to check this first.
Types of hedge
Hedging plants can be evergreen, deciduous, flowering or not obviously flowering. We prefer evergreens because they give more protection in winter when the gales are at their most frequent. If they produce a lot of flowers, like Escallonia, then this is a bonus!
Shrub species to consider on the edge of the beach
These species are your pioneers. Phormium (New Zealand Flax) grows 8 to 10ft high and will stand up to pretty well anything, with its leathery leaves. Tamarix (Tamarisk) will grow on the edge of the beach: it is straggly but graceful and produces abundant pink flowers in the summer. Hippophae rhamnoides (Sea Buckthorn) has small greyish leaves; it is covered in orange berries in the autumn. There are thickets of Sea Buckthorn between the dunes and the road at Hayle Towans. Olearia macrodonta (New Zealand Holly) has grey-green holly-like leaves, with sweet-smelling white flowers in early summer.
The most useful of all must be the Escallonias. There are many varieties but favourites include Escallonia `Apple Blossom' and Escallonia `Crimson Spire'. They can be trimmed to make dense walls which will really change the climate of the area which they are protecting. They have dark shiny oval leaves and produce lots of flowers from early to mid-summer, varying from white (E. leukantha) to pink or red according to variety.
Griselinia littoralis has largish leaves and is capable of growing to 20ft (6m). It is very quick-growing and easy to propagate from cuttings, which can be stuck in the ground in situ. The Olearia family includes some very good windbreak hedging. Olearia traversii has broad glossy leaves with white undersides. Ligustrum (Privet) has small dark oval leaves, and of course is easy to trim. We tend to think of it as a formal, suburban hedge, but it is a very useful windbreak. The Elaeagnus family are quick-growing and ornamental. Elaeagnus x ebbingei has long oval, shiny dark green leaves and sweetly scented white flowers in autumn. Pittosporum is traditionally grown for its foliage, which is used in flower-arranging. Pittosporum crassifolium has oblong dark green leaves with grey undersides. It has small purplish flowers in spring. Brachyglottis `Dunedin Hybrids' formerly called Senecio greyi has oval or elliptic leaves with bright yellow flowers. Atriplex x halimus (Tree Purslane) has grey oval leaves, it is straggly but very wind-resistant. Euonymus japonicus has dense, glossy green foliage (there are variegated varieties too). It forms dense foliage from bottom to top, providing shelter from ground level upwards.
Elaeagnus umbellata is a fast-growing shrub that has bright green leaves with silver undersides; cream flowers are followed by red berries. Salix caprea (Goat Willow) has dark green leaves with grey undersides, produces `Pussy Willow' catkins in spring. Sorbus intermedia (Swedish Whitebeam) grows into a medium-sized tree, dense foliage of dark green, divided leaves; white flowers in spring, red fruit.
Other types to consider
Cortaderia selloana (Pampas Grass) grows up to 8ft (2.5m) high with long grassy blades and big flowering plumes. There's an excellent stand of Pampas Grass on the seafront at Penzance. Pseudosasa japonica (Arrow Bamboo) is clump-forming with wide, pointed leaves which are dark green above, more glaucous beneath: it has, however, a tendency to spread.
Tree species to consider
For an interesting hedge, plant trees in it as well. There are several species of Pinus, of which the most obvious is Pinus radiata (Monterey Pine). The much-maligned cupressocyparis x Leylandii is useful to create a quick hedge but it must be kept trimmed. Acer pseudoplatanus (Sycamore) is damned for its success because it tends to seed everywhere, but it is very useful in exposed positions. Picea sitchensis (Sitka Spruce) is fast growing and will stand up straight without staking in even the worst gales. Quercus ilex (Holm Oak) is an evergreen oak with dark green leaves, grey undersides. Fraxinus excelsior* (Ash) has dark green leaves divided into leaflets; in winter its black buds are a useful identifier. It bears single winged fruits, not to be confused with the paired fruits of Sycamore.
How to plant
Hedging plants and trees are normally planted in the winter months when they are dormant, from November to February. Rooted cuttings and young trees (`whips') are best bought bare-rooted, i.e. dug up to order by the nursery. They will have better root systems and may be cheaper than container-grown stock. On the other hand, container-grown plants can be put in at any time.
Bare-rooted hedging plants must be planted as soon as they arrive. If this isn't possible, `heel' them in at once into soil. Trees that are waiting on the site to be planted should be kept wrapped in sacks to prevent them drying out.
A single row should be adequate: space the hedging plants at about 2ft6ins 3ft (76cm 100cm) apart. If you can shelter them with an artificial windbreak on the windward side, so much the better. Try to keep the ground clear of weeds, preferably by using a plastic or organic mulch. We prefer a mixed hedge rather than one species which can look rather too formal. Include wind-resistant trees in the line of the hedge for extra interest and protection.