How To Prune A Hedge

    Once you understand the characteristics of your own hedge the easier they can become to manage. A smart and freshly cut hedge can improve the look and feel of your entire garden. A few hours of work can then have benefits that can last for months. 

    Before You Begin

    Unfortunately it isn’t always just a case of picking up hedge trimmers or secateurs and attacking your hedge on a whim. To really get the best out of your hedge in the long term, you need to do some planning beforehand. Having a clear understanding of what you want to achieve before tackling it with the trimmers is the first step to a perfectly manicured hedge.

    Sizing Up Your Nemesis

    This may sound obvious but the first thing you need to do before you get going is understand the type of hedge that you are clipping. Different species grow at different rates and therefore need different care. It will also come down to how you want it to look in your garden. Once you understand what you are up against, the easier it will be to plan for it.

    In terms of hedge finish there are two different options. Formal hedges are usually kept very neat and tightly clipped. These usually take more work, as they require clipping more often to keep the same shape. Formal hedges do add a smart geometric design element to a garden, however the end result may not justify the work going into it depending on how much time you have at your disposal.

    Informal hedges, by contrast, aren’t clipped as tightly and are allowed a more natural shape. These do not require as much trimming but can look much more untidy than formal hedges. Informal hedges can soften the look of a garden.

    The next thing to consider is the plant itself. Typically hedges can fall into one of two categories: Deciduous, or Evergreen hedges:

    Evergreen hedges provide the benefits of having shelter or privacy throughout the year as they can grow thick coats of leaves. Evergreen hedges will most often need to be pruned roughly twice a year. If it gets neglected or overgrown you may not be able to restore it so it needs to be managed correctly.

    Deciduous hedges won’t offer the same privacy or wind protection that an evergreen hedge would provide, however there are other benefits that come with this type of hedge. Species like beech hedges hold onto its brown leaves, which can look great as a contrasting colour in the garden. These hedges are much more forgiving if you miss a year of pruning, although it is recommended to prune in late the summer.

    Nesting Animals

    Some animals like to use hedges as an ideal home to bring up their offspring as they provide the perfect amount of protection from the weather and predators. They are also easy to get in and out of for birds, which is helpful when bringing food back for the fledglings. If you find that your hedge has animals nesting inside it this can massively affect your work.

    According to the Wildlife and Countryside act of 1981, it is against the law to intentionally “kill, injure or take” any wild bird or nest. There are certain exceptions however, if, by trimming your hedge, you ruin the nest of a family of wild birds you can be contravening this law which can result in an unlimited fine and/or a prison term. 

    Choose Your Tools Wisely

    When it comes to trimming hedges, there are a number of tools and machines available to help. Realistically it comes down to the size and shape of the hedge in question. A larger hedge may require an electric hedge trimmer to get the job done quicker, whereas a smaller hedge may require some clippers or some secateurs.

    The size and density of the hedge will determine the best tool for the job. If the leaves are very dense with thick branches, you will need a more powerful machine to cut through. If the hedge is significantly taller than you this will require a long reach hedge trimmer like the Flymo Sabrecut - this would definitely save you having to scrabble for ladders!

    In addition to this, you will need to make sure you have the correct safety equipment. With clippers or secateurs you will need to wear gloves to avoid catching yourself on the debris and goggles to protect you from falling foliage, however for a larger hedge trimmer you will need something much more substantial.

    If you are using an electric trimmer with a long cable it is recommended to fit an RCD (residual current device). It is surprisingly easy to cut the cable and a device like this could literally be a lifesaver. Hedge trimmers also can come with automatic brakes, which make the blades stop straight away after you release the trigger - it is worth looking out for this feature if possible.

    Cutting Techniques

    Before you get to work on the hedge trimming, it is worth laying a sheet or tarpaulin on the floor near the hedge so the trimmed debris can be collected easily. This may sound simple but it can save a lot of time and makes the cleanup significantly easier.

    If the hedge has a lot of thick spots you may want to thin this out with some small clippers. The inner branches will need air and sunlight so it isn’t advisable to let them be completely covered. Cut the branches just above the new growth or at the base of the plant. Now is also a good time to remove any dead limbs as they can grow back anew. It isn’t recommended to use your powered trimmer for this, as it is much more of a precision job. Trimmers will only encourage growth at the top of the shrub, where the cut has been made whereas cutting further back incites growth along the branch.

    If you are using clippers or shears you will need to ensure you keep the cut level and flat by making sure the blades are perfectly parallel to the top of the hedge. When using hedge trimmers the blade will do all of the work for you however, you will need to make sure you hold it steady otherwise it will ruin all of your good work. When working on the sides of the hedge, cut in a sweeping action working from the bottom upwards so the foliage falls away safely. You will also need to trim the sides to maintain the taper towards the top of the hedge. When cutting the top of the hedge, angle your hedge trimmer slightly (roughly 10°) and cut with a scything motion so the cut debris gets swept away cleanly.

    When you get to the top of the hedge you may need a ladder. If this is the case be sure it is stable and is secure before you stand on it. Hedge trimmers can be very dangerous and if you suddenly lose your footing it can spell disaster. Even garden shears are sharp and can cause problems.

    You will need to be careful not to cut too much. If you trim too far back it not only can make the hedge look ungainly but it also can affect future growth. The actual amount you should trim depends heavily on the species of hedge and how old it is. As a general rule you shouldn’t cut back any more than a third of the hedge in one go. 

    Shape Up!

    Now that you have everything planned you are ready to get cracking! If you have sized up your hedge you should have a pretty good idea of your desired shape, which in turn will dictate how much you need to cut.

    Each hedge will need formative pruning once it has been planted, so if your hedge is new you will need to be aware of what is required as soon as it is given its new home. Formative pruning is usually carried out in spring or winter and is very important in the first couple of years after planting. This type of pruning is key to allowing the hedge to grow into the shape you want. After a couple years you will only need maintenance trimming once or twice a year during the spring or summer.

    For formal hedges the finished product is key. So much emphasis is placed on the neatness of the cut that it is imperative to get the shape correct, symmetrical and even. Ideally, a formal hedge doesn’t need to be much wider than 2ft. To ensure you cut straight and well defined edges, use external reference points as opposed to measuring it by eye, which can be tricky. If you tie a piece of string tightly between two stakes in the ground it can act as a helpful guide to keep you on the straight and narrow. Stakes or bamboo poles can be helpful with vertical lines. If you don't have anything to hand there may be visual cues such as lines on the buildings behind the hedge, for example the brickwork, which you can use as a reference point.

    If you are feeling ambitious and fancy trying your hand at a bit of clever topiary you may find it easier to create a wire mesh outline of the shape before cutting. This will give you a clear indication of where you should be cutting and will make life much easier. This way, the only limitation will be your own imagination.