How to grow beech
Allowed to grow to its full potential, beech forms a large majestic tree for spacious gardens. It also makes a fine hedge with bright green leaves that turn burnt orange in autumn. Although deciduous, it usually holds onto the dead leaves when grown as a hedge, so still offers privacy and shelter during winter.
- Excellent as hedging
- Select copper beech for a bold statement
- Beeches are long-lived trees or hedges
- Good on any free-draining soil, including chalk
- Not suitable for regions prone to drought
- Grows in sun or part shade
- Trim hedges annually in August and renovate in February
- Hedges retain old leaves in winter while tree forms drop them
All you need to know
Choosing a beech
Do you want to grow beech as a hedge? Or a tree? This will help you decide which beech is right for you.
With the exception of the upright or weeping forms, select any beech (Fagus sylvatica) for an easy-to-maintain hedge. Plant young plants and clip annually to form a neat hedge around 90cm-2.4m (3-8ft) tall, or taller if an object or view needs screening. Beech leaves die each autumn but, unlike most other deciduous trees, young and clipped beech holds onto its dead leaves throughout the winter. This gives great winter screening, but the hedge appears brown in winter.
If you prefer a green hedge year-round, choose an evergreen such as yew or laurel instead. And if you like the look of beech but garden on a very heavy or wet soil, or are in a frost pocket, plant the more tolerant hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) which also holds onto its dead leaves into winter, albeit to a lesser extent than beech.
Common beech (Fagus sylvatica) can grow to a height of 25m (80ft) and spread of 15m (50ft), so check there is space. Often grown in a woodland, beech is also an impressive tree in a very large garden or avenue. Plant a distinctive form if you want to make a statement. This might be the cut-leaved Fagus sylvatica var. heterophylla ‘Aspleniifolia’, the narrowly upright purple-leaved Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Purple’ or the gracefully weeping Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’.
Beech naturally has mid-green leaves, but there are both purple-leaved selections such as Fagus sylvatica Atropurupurea Group and golden-leaved forms such as Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Gold’ available. Copper or purple-leaved types often flush red in autumn, as opposed to the yellow or orange-brown autumn colours of standard green-leaved beech.
Go to a hedging specialist to source reasonably-priced beech hedging plants. Most suppliers will offer bare-rooted plants by mail order in winter.
For specimen container-grown beech trees, tree and shrub nurseries stock the best range. Track one down with our Find a Plant tool.
When to plant beech
- Plant bare-rooted hedging plants during mild spells in winter when trees are dormant, usually any time between October and February, but avoiding periods when the soil is waterlogged
- Container-grown beech trees for specimen planting can be planted any time of year, but you will find them easier to keep watered if you plant in winter or spring
Where to plant beech
Site your new beech hedge or tree in sun or part shade. Purple-leaved forms colour up deepest in full sun while golden leaved forms scorch less if planted in light shade. Young beech leaves can be killed by late frosts, so try to avoid planting them in frost pockets. And, also, stay clear of wet areas in the garden as roots may rot off in waterlogged soil.
How to plant beech
Continue to water your beech trees and hedges for the first season or two after planting, paying particular attention during dry spells in spring or summer.
Try to keep the base of newly planted trees or hedges free of weeds. Covering the soil with a 5-7.5cm (2-3in) layer of organic matter such as bark, composted bark or leafmould will help reduce moisture loss from the soil and suppress weeds, giving the beech roots a head start. Just take care not to bury the bottom of woody plants such as beech with mulch as this can lead to rotting around the base of the trunk.
Beech aren’t heavy feeders. But if you wish to speed up growth, perhaps so a hedge provides screening more quickly for example, apply a general-purpose fertiliser such as Growmore or blood, fish and bone no earlier than the second spring after planting. Following renovation pruning, apply fertiliser ideally along both sides of your hedge to help plants recover from the loss of wood.
Taller trees may need staking for the first few years, especially if they are weak-stemmed. Here are some practical tips.
Newly planted: There is no need to prune your new hedging plants if they have plenty of side branches. If plants are sparse, however, help thicken them up by shortening the leading shoot and longer shoots by up to one third. Do this in winter or straight after planting. Repeat in the second year if the plants still look a bit leggy.
From the third year onwards, trim the sides of the hedge in the second week of August. The top can be pruned when your beech hedge reaches the height you want to keep it at. If you aim for a width of about 1m (3¼ft) at the base and a flat-topped A-shape (in cross section), the hedge will be well-shaped with plenty of sunlight reaching the top and bottom.
Established hedge: Trim your beech hedge each August to keep it to the size you want. This late summer trimming allows the hedge to retain its recent flush of new leaves over the winter in a brown, autumnal state, providing year-round screening. If you miss pruning in August just trim the following spring instead (don’t disturb nesting birds though – see the Top Tip below).
Overgrown hedge: Don’t be afraid to cut back hard an overgrown beech hedge in February while it is still dormant but wait a while if the weather is very cold. If you need to reduce the height or sides by half or more, it’s best to stagger pruning over two seasons rather than doing it all at once. Cut one side and the top in the first year, leaving the other side to the second year. If your hedge is slow to regrow after the first prune, postpone the second cut back for a further twelve months.
Allow your young specimen trees to keep their lower side branches until the crown has matured a little. This is to discourage the formation of more than one leading shoot (multiple leaders spoil the shape of the tree and can be prone to failure if allowed to mature) and to protect the main stem from sun scorch.
Prune a beech tree, if necessary, between autumn and early spring. It is usual to create a clear trunk of 2.4-3m (8-10ft) to allow the sweeping lower branches some space to develop. Cuts with a diameter larger than 6cm (2½in) may not heal so readily so try to keep these to a minimum. A professional tree surgeon will be able to advise on more major pruning work. Read more about things to consider when pruning trees on our advice page.
Under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 it is an offence to damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird so take particular care when pruning trees and hedges between March and August.
The easiest method to propagate beech (Fagus sylvatica) is from seed by collecting ripe beech nuts or ‘masts’ in late summer or autumn. You can either sow them straight away or store them in the fridge to sow in February which helps avoid rodent problems in winter. Sow seeds individually in deep, narrow containers such as Rootrainers and place them outdoors. Alternatively, sow directly into a sandy seed bed. Seeds germinate at 10°C (50°F). Seedlings collected from purple or copper-leaved trees are likely to vary in the level of red or purple pigmentation.
Growing from seed is a cheap technique for propagating large numbers of beech plants such as when you need them for hedging. It takes a little longer than buying plants but beech is quick growing so can be worth it. To grow seedling beech to a reasonable size, i.e. 30-60cm (1-2ft) before planting them out as hedge plants, lift and replant the saplings in the same soil 18 months after germination (after two seasons’ growth). This deliberate root disturbance encourages a branched, fibrous root system to develop, rather than a single deep tap root, helping the young beech plants to establish quickly when they are planted in their final position.
See our page on growing trees and shrubs from seed.
Named forms of beech can be kept true to type by grafting. In late winter or early spring, graft young wood from the desired form (called the ‘scion’) onto a two or three-year old Fagus sylvatica sapling. This requires more skill than seed sowing.
Once established beech are pretty reliable but watch out for the following:
- Woolly beech aphids can look alarming but don’t usually do much damage
- Protect young plants from rabbit and deer stripping which can quickly ring bark trees especially in cold weather or after snowfall
- Beech heart rots caused by the fungus Ganoderma can weaken mature trees, causing them to fail
- Signs of ill health or the death of mature beech trees or hedging can also be due to the very common disease honey fungus
Prolonged drought will cause beech trees to suffer.
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