How to Shape Your Hedges and Bushes: Top Tips

Often, hedges and bushes are visual features of your garden and make a real impact on how your garden looks. The beginning of the year is typically a good time to trim your hedges and bushes before spring nesting birds and the summer sun as warmer weather encourages them to grow.

Shaping - What Do I Need?

Shaping a hedge or bush is generally only limited by a hedge’s type, size and your imagination. This is commonly called topiary. It is relatively easy to do and just requires a little practice.

Depending on the shape you want your hedge to be, you will need:

  • Hedge trimmer (go cordless for extra flexibility when shaping)
  • Wooden stakes
  • Piece of bamboo
  • String

For irregular, round or spiral shaped hedges:

  • Hand shears or saw
  • Wire meshing

It is recommended that you wear appropriate clothing and safety equipment when cutting your hedges. If using an electric hedge trimmer with mains electricity, you should plug it into an RCD adaptor so that it cuts out if there is a power surge.

Giving Your Hedge a Straight Edge

In the UK, you’re more likely to see hedges with straight edges. This is often called a formal hedge, as they are commonly used to define property boundaries. Giving your hedge a simple ‘top, back and sides' is relatively simple.

Smaller hedges can be cut by eye, using an electric hedge trimmer with the user periodically stopping, standing back and checking that the hedge is straight.

For larger hedges, it is recommended that you hammer two stakes into the ground at either end of hedge. Tie a piece of string at the height you wish to cut and pull it taut to create your straight line. This can then be used as a cutting guide to ensure that the hedge is evenly cut.


Cutting a Square Hedge

The principles of cutting a square hedge are the same as creating a straight line. Use a string pulled taut between two garden canes to create the flat top using your hedge trimmer in a straight, sweeping movement.

To create the flat sides, use the garden canes again as a guide, making sure that they are stood up perfectly straight. Move the hedge cutter up from the base of the hedge, keeping it well aligned with the garden canes to ensure a flat surface.

Giving Your Hedge a Slope

Before attempting to give your hedge a slope, you should map out how you want it to look. Make sure that all areas of your hedge will be able to get sunlight. If not, these areas can turn brown and die off. The widest part of your hedge should always be the base.

Using the same principle with the pieces of string and wooden stakes, give yourself a guide for creating a straight edge. Move the hedge trimmer upwards from the base to form your slope, gradually increasing the amount you trim off as you move to the top.

If you’re cutting older bushes, your electric hedge trimmer may not be able to cut through dense patches or thick branches. Make sure you have a sharp pair of manual hedge cutters or saw to help you get through thicker branches.

round hedge

Cutting a Round Hedge

For a rounded cut, you should start around 3 inches from the top of the hedge. To achieve the curve, you will have to use your eye and instinct. Keeping the hedge trimmer at an angle, move it away from your body and to the top of the hedge. Keep repeating this motion as you move around the hedge to create an even finish.

Unfortunately, unless you intend to use wire mesh, there is no other way to create this shape than by eye. This means that you might wish to practise on a less prominent hedge before you attempt to create a feature. 

How to Cut a Spiral

Spiralling is the most popular form of topiary, and though it looks complex, the steps are easy to follow with a keen eye and a bit of practice.

First, you need to make sure that your hedge is the right shape.

Start by trimming your hedge into a cone shape with the base as the widest point. Do this by locating the central point of growth at the top of your hedge and working away and down from there to achieve the cone shape. If your hedge is looking a bit thin, give it some time to grow before returning to create the spiral shape.

Using a piece of string, map out where you would like the spiral to sit. This will help to guide your shears as you work around the plant evenly. Work up from the base of the plant, cutting at an angle below the string to remove foliage to create the spiral shape. As you progress, allow the angle to increase gradually to give the spiral more definition.

If you want to add a ball on top, cut using the rounding method as before, but also make sure you remove the branches directly below the ball to make it stand out on top of the spiral.

Obtaining and Maintaining, An Irregular Shaped Hedge

We have all seen them, hedges shaped like animals or abstract shapes. They look impressive, but as you might have guessed, they aren’t the easiest of shape types to get.

The best way to achieve an irregular shaped hedge design is to create a metal mesh that fits nicely around your hedge or bush. Sit the frame on top of your hedge and then neatly cut around the mesh using your electric hedge trimmer or hand shears. By trimming regularly, it will slowly train your hedge or bush to grow in the shape you want.

Cutting Different Types of Hedge

Some hedges, such as hawthorn, privet, conifers and box are tall and therefore best for achieving spirals and other taller topiary shapes. Others, such as beech and hornbeam are slightly stockier so are more suited to smaller shapes.

For formal hedges, the best option is usually the box as it has thick growth and small leaves, perfect for shaping and maintaining easily. Informal hedges, such as rhododendrons or hydrangeas are much more difficult to shape as they have much larger leaves and some ideas of their own about how they want to sit. Though you are well recommended to prune them for maintenance, leave the peacock shapes to other hedge types!

Always remember that most hedges prefer to be pruned or shaped during their dormant season and for flowering or fruiting hedges, this means after the flowers and fruit have gone. The very beginning of spring is often a good time for pruning as it will give your hedge plenty of time to fill out again over the summer. 

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