Salal — Gaultheria shallon

Hedges: What you want versus what you get

Heather Brown explains the measures she has taken to defeat deer and build the kind of hedge she wants.

In a previous column I wrote about a Laurel hedge that I am trying to save from deer. It is six-year, ongoing battle, deer 5, Heather 1 (maybe). In my head I was imagining a long wavy stretch of Laurel, shining in the morning light. Trimmed at 8 feet, and kept tidy by judicial pruning each year. A 8-foot base tapering to a 4-foot wide top, it looked beautiful in my imagination. This is 6 years on and I am still trying to get the hedge (I am using the term “hedge” loosely as they are still just tiny shrubs, over 3 feet apart) past deer height. This is the first year they still have leaves on them at midsummer. Fingers crossed, eh.

This column is about hedges and viable alternatives to paying a lot of money for potted trees that are really just deer candy. I thought deer didn’t like laurel but after footing a bill for 50 young plants, I now know different. I assumed that being evergreen; it would not be considered tasty. You may think, as I did, that laurel with thick, leathery leaves, was deer proof. Like most other plants brought in from the nursery, laurel is just a new taste sensation for deer. Even cedar hedging can be harshly pruned by browsing deer. Think of those tall ornamental cedars hedges that look great except for the first four feet. There, they show evidence of a deer infestation.

I recently was a Van Dusen Gardens in the lower mainland, absolutely blooming amazing. They have large garden areas dedicated to specific plantings, i.e. North Western North American Plant Species, arid Mid-continental plantings, Rhododendrons and Azaleas, Medicinal Plants and Medicine Wheels, etc. I studied the North Western North American area. It looked like what was originally in my back yard before I tried to tame it. The area was landscaped and planted up nicely with everything spaced and ordered. I looked at the name tags (Latin) and recognized many plants and trees found along hiking trails that lead to beaches on the North Island coast. All this got me thinking. Why not go with what grows here anyway?

The soil on the coastal Northern Vancouver Island dictates what grows well here. When I was planting up the laurel hedge I added bone meal, fresh soil and shrub fertilizer to the planting holes. I was meaning to give the plants a bit of a jump start by mimicking the soil where the shrub came from originally. But what if I wanted to have a salal (Gaultheria shallon) hedge? Before you hurt yourself laughing, hear me out. All I would need was new plants of salal, a willing participant in my yard anyway. I have a natural ditch running down a slight slope towards the home of a future pond. What if I were to dig up all the suckers that have come up throughout the garden and plant them along this ditch? I would dig in 10-inch deep planks long the edges to contain further suckering and layering as much as possible. No need to add soil, whatever is there is what it likes. Salal will even grow from old logs and stumps, sending out roots and suckers that will eventually hide what it is growing on. Salal is a vigorous plant, every spring it will send out underground shoots at the same time as new growth sprouts above. New leaves are a bright light green, contrasting pleasingly with the shiny dark green leaves from previous growth. The flowers appear in early summer. Beautiful pale pink flowers cluster on stalks in groups of 10-15 and add interest to the chorus of green already on show. The berries that follow are dark blue/purple and are considered edible (but seedy). They make a great, tart, jelly.

I have heard that salal can put out a chemical that will impede the sprouting of other seeds. I personally think that may be overdoing it on the part of the salal, have you noticed how opportunistic salal is? Before an area is logged there may be little sign of salal, but as soon as trees are gone or the roads are opened there it is. All it needs is an opening and it will quickly fill it in. Most salal seems to only grow into a shrubby mat about 3-5 feet. There is a trail along the east cost, north of Port McNeill, that has salal so tall you have to look high overhead to see its lower leaves. It has shaded out almost everything as it has grown except coniferous trees that have broken through the canopy. That is a persistent shrub. It probably got started when the land was opened up for roads, and kept going.

There are garden nurseries that sell salal amongst other plants we find “persistent” for lack of a better word, on the North Island. I have seen skunk cabbage, red alder, Ocean Spray, Flowering Currant, Ninebark and a plethora of other common plants, shrubs and trees available at nurseries in the lower mainland and Victoria. These are the same plants we have been trying to shift out of our back yards for a century or more. I am too Scottish by nature to buy these offerings, but I know I can do something with the flora that is dug up during ditching, road building and logging. It is not a good idea to go out and dig up any old thing you like in the woods around us, but give some thought to the plants that are wasted when the ditches are cleared or roads being built. Ferns and small shrubs can be potted up and transported home. This is where knowing someone involved with road building comes in handy, for permission and for safety’s sake. I have a row of ferns that were part of the overburden cleared from an old logging road. It was late summer so the deer ferns, sword fern and lady fern were finished growing anyway. I got permission to go into the area after it was shut down for heat. I brought a few old plant pots, and a small shovel. Because it was dry the ferns had wilted a bit, but the soil came away from the rhizomes easily, making for a lighter load. I planted up these ferns along a trail at the back of the house. The soil was perfect without any effort on my part. After a good watering-in they took hold and never looked back. The sword and deer ferns are evergreen and hide the die back of the lady ferns over the winter. The spores produced have gone onto become new ferns that can be easily moved to fill in empty areas. Sword ferns, with their glossy dark green fronds, grow tall enough to create a distinctive hedge. Lady Fern adds colour “punch” with tall soft yellow/green fronds.

By Heather Brown


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