With its marcescent foliage, the hornbeam remains covered throughout the year. The withered leaves are left hanging on the branches during the winter, giving a touch of colour year-round. Several species of hornbeam are available to provide a garden with volume and structure. Their heights, as well as their natural shapes, differ. The hornbeam also lends itself perfectly to pruning, bringing an elegant touch to the setting.

The hornbeam is an ornamental tree that lends itself well to topiary. Whether they are bowl-shaped, pyramidal or cubic, they give a garden or driveway a touch of originality. Here are some tips on growing methods and maintenance techniques relative to these decorative species.

General information on the hornbeam

Originally from Europe and Asia Minor, the Carpinus betulus hornbeam is a common tree in France, taking up 1.5% of French forests. It is a tree with marcescent foliage that can reach a height of up to 25 meters.  It is planted for its decorative bearing and for its predisposition to pruning, including topiary. The hornbeam belongs to the same botanical family as birch and hazel, the Betulaceae family. It starts blooming in spring, bringing out its yellow and green catkins. There are several species of hornbeam that belong to the Carpinus genre. They have different sizes and bearings but are all planted in garden centres.

Hornbeam cultivation techniques and maintenance

The hornbeam can reproduce by sowing, which is immediately carried out in autumn with fresh seeds collected throughout the same year. One must be careful in regard to the seeds, as those that have dried out may take a year to germinate, leading to unpredictable and random sprouting. We can also propagate it by taking cuttings of herbaceous shoots in late spring. The use of rooting hormone is recommended to boost the chances of recovery. The hornbeam also lends itself to air layering, the air layer being put in place in late spring. We must ensure that the substrate layering does not dry due to the summer heat, and the use of hormone is also recommended. After checking the roots, the layers can be separated in the fall or following spring. Hornbeam seedlings in pots are also available in garden nurseries.

The planting of seedlings ideally takes place in autumn. We can bring in fine soil, in an amount equal to half that of the garden earth. In addition, compost amendment is also recommended. Although it can accommodate any type of soil, even chalk, hornbeams have a slight preference for slightly clayey and fresh land. Given that hornbeam roots are rather superficial, it is necessary to ensure that the soil around the base of the tree does not dry out. A regular substantial watering carried out twice a week is useful to encourage recovery. One can also mulch the plants to prevent evaporation, which will also provide protection against frost in winter. Mulching the base of the tree during the first three years with fibrous compost is a clever technique that allows the plant easy access to nutrients at its disposal. Upon planting, some of the branches will be removed to generate maximum growth of new shoots. The hornbeam fears the summer heat and prefers exposure to partial shade. However, it can tolerate exposure to sunlight. To obtain uniform hedges, hornbeam seeds should be spaced out 20 to 25 inches. For free hedges, a spacing of 5 to 6 feet is sufficient.

The hornbeam can also be grown in pots, some species lending themselves well to the art of bonsai. It is advisable to bring the potted plants back inside during the winter, as they are more exposed to frost than those grown on the open ground. It is also recommended to shelter the pot in case of very rainy weather, so that the substrate does not remain too wet for too long. The plant is placed in mid-shade during summer and left in direct sunlight the rest of the year. Repotting is preferably carried out in February-March before the start of vegetation. Young seedlings are repotted every year, once every three years is enough for older ones.

Pruning the hornbeam

The hornbeam is ideally pruned at least twice a year. The aim of the first pruning is to give the plant the desired shape, leaving in place only the necessary branches while guiding the development of future ones. It must be carried out in winter or early spring. The second pruning, one of maintenance, is done in August-September after the growing season and in anticipation of winter preparation. For trees that have acquired the desired shape, pruning is generally limited to cutting the new shoots twice a year. To create difficult shapes, wire frames can be used to guide the branches. For hedges, we do heavy pruning in the early years to encourage a high density of branching. The shoots can be pruned more often, 2 to 6 times a year if necessary. Pruning should be avoided during periods of frost or in direct sunlight during the summer. Ideally, pruning should be done from top to bottom and from the centre outwards.

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Published in Large trees by Alexander on 04 Jul 2011