Hedge Trimming For Beginners (Tools, Techniques & Timing)

Hedge Trimming - A Beginner's Guide

Need to do some hedge trimming but don’t know where to start? I felt the same, but learned that with the right tools and the right approach, this job can be easy and the results are really worthwhile. Let me explain more.

Trim a hedge twice a year to keep it tidy, with formative pruning on newer plants to create their shape. You might need to use electric tools on large hedges, but with careful pruning of overgrown and dead branches, you will achieve great results trimming hedges with hand tools.

By trimming a hedge from the base upwards, and making sure the bottom is slightly wider than the top, you will encourage an even growth and get that neat square shape that’ll make you the envy of your neighbours.

Let’s break the task into three elements so that you will feel confident about how to trim a hedge.

Canons Ashby Low Hedge Border

What Tools Do You Need To Trim A Hedge?

Safety Equipment

Safety should always come first, so don’t even think about putting a blade anywhere near a bush unless you’ve got goggles and gloves!

  • Protective eyewear is a must, as you can heal scratches on your arms a lot more effectively than those on your eyes! Goggles prevent all manner of debris from landing in your eyes, and there are a wide range of styles available depending on your budget and fashion sense.
  • Sturdy gloves prevent blisters while helping you win the war against thorns. Cheap gloves can be a false economy as they often provide little defence against spiky shrubs, so if you’re committing to the cause, investing in some thick gloves is a smart move.
  • Overalls are a great way to protect your clothes from plant-based damage, while giving off the message that you mean business when beating your bushes back into shape. However, sensible sturdy clothing will suffice – long sleeves will provide some protection against thorns and such like.

Hedge Trimming Shears

First and foremost you will need something to actually execute the hedge trimming. If you are starting out and don’t want to spend a fortune, then a robust pair of hand shears will get the job done. Some shears have extendable handles which provide extra reach and more power for your pruning. Combine them with some secateurs for fine tuning and you’re in great shape.

For bigger jobs like tall hedges, or to save time, you can consider electric or petrol-driven hedge trimmers; these are often long-handled to provide extra reach.

Here are the key things to consider when using shears:

  • Use sharp properly lubricated shears – for smooth trimming, ensure the shear is not only sharp but also well lubricated, so less effort is needed.
  • Keep powered shears below your shoulder height when trimming large hedges; it’s all about stability, maintaining your state of equilibrium. When you’re trimming the top of the hedge on a ladder, moving shears on top of your head, you’re much unstable and at high risk of tumbling down.
  • Use long-handled shears for less effort and a maximum safe distance away from thorns.
  • Observe electric safety rules – avoid using electric shears on damp hedges. Additionally, keep the insulated cable away from the shears; to avoid cutting it accidentally, keep it over your shoulders.

If you are working with bigger bushes, you may need to use a ladder or a platform to reach the tallest foliage. Resist the temptation to use a chair, if possible; the risk of injury should outweigh the convenience of familiar furniture!

Don’t forget that many plant hire shops can provide these tools, as well as safety equipment, so if you’re budget minded this might be the best way to get the hedge trimming gizmos you need..

A trimmed rectangular hedge

Techniques And Trimming Tips

Safety first! Ensure there are no obstacles on the ground. For smooth, care-free hedge trimming movement, get rid of any obstacles from your path so you won’t fall and injure yourself with those sharp hedge shears. The time spent doing it can also be used to start assessing the hedge to determine the right approach to take.

Thin Out & Remove Dead Branches

Before shaping the hedge to the desired look, remove overgrown and useless branches to ensure the rest get enough nutrients. Branches may be damaged for a number of reasons, it’s the way of the world, but you owe it to your hedge to help them recover.

  • Eliminate dead branches at the plant’s base.
  • Eliminate crossing branches that block out sunlight and air.
  • Remove any branches that appear to grow towards the centre of the hedge. You want your hedge to be growing nicely outward.
  • Eliminate branches that oddly stick out.

Once you’ve done this, take time to look at the hedge and understand how it naturally sits. With a bit of luck you’ve eased its mass, it looks good within its landscape and it will thank you for it.

Cut Carefully!

When cutting off a branch, make the cut precise so that the stem heals off quickly. Always aim to preserve the natural shape of the plant; try to leave the branch collar intact so that any decay at the tips doesn’t reach the core of the plant. Although you want to contain the hedge, you must also honour the hedge.

There are four hedge trimming techniques you can use, each of which achieves different effects. These are:

  • Pinching – Using your forefinger and thumb, clasp a terminal bud and remove it. This helps prevent elongated stems and bushy hedges.
  • Heading – Cut off a lateral bud just above the leaves, it may stimulate dense foliage which can be attractive in the long run. It also injures the plant and distorts its shape.
  • Thinning – Thinning removes selected stems or branches entirely. It’s the best alternative to topping and helps reduce dense unwanted foliage, thereby preserving the plant’s shape.
  • Shearing – Used to give hedges a desired artificial shape, it involves targeting the shrub outer edges far away from the buds. This will allow the plant to grow thicker, while keeping the overall shape as you like it.
Thick Trimmed Hedges

Shaping Your Hedge

You will notice that after some time, hedges tend to attain a V shape. The reason for this is that the top part receives more sunlight, grows and widens faster shading out the bottom. The bottom, therefore, produces less foliage and narrows while the top widens.

To carefully counteract this, when trimming:

  • Ensure the base is wider than the top – shear in an angle such that the hedge gets wider at the bottom, no matter your topiary. This ensures the bottom foliage gets maximum sunlight.
  • Always start shearing one side of the hedge from the bottom and widen the cutting angle as you work your way toward the top. Check your work in between cuts to get a feel of what’s going on.
  • Avoid removing branches that make the skeleton of the tree. The rule of thumb is to avoid removing more than 25% of the branches of the entire hedge. If you prune the skeleton of the hedge (the thicker structural branches) you risk widespread damage.
The Leamington Flyer Topiary Hedge
The Leamington Flyer Topiary Hedge

Guidelines about Guidelines

If you want to keep the hedge in a straight line, you can use stakes and strings lined along the hedges to direct your cuts. The attention to detail at this stage can have big rewards in the overall efficiency of your shearing success.

Guidelines are important in achieving the desired topiary particularly if you start moving into more sophisticated shapes, but I’ll cover this in another post.

Keep It Clean!

When you cut into diseased foliage, you run the risk of spreading the disease to other parts of the plant if you don’t disinfect your shearing tools. Make use of alcohol and other disinfectants to keep your tools clean before moving to healthy branches.

Careful cleaning of your equipment at the end of the task will prolong the life of your tools, and although it might be the last thing you want to do before enjoying a refreshing drink as you admire your work, it will be far easier to clean your tools at the end of one job, than at the beginning of the next!

I’ve got more information on cleaning your hedge trimming tools here!

Hedgerows in Ashorne, Warwickshire

When Should You Trim Your Hedges?

The number of times you trim a hedge depends on whether it is a formal or informal hedge.

  • A formal hedge may need to be trimmed often to ensure it is neat and precise; probably more than twice a year. There is a balance to be had, and if you are taking your secateurs to the hedge every weekend, that might border on the obsessive. I won’t judge you.
  • An informal hedge, on the other hand, can be given a little freedom to grow into a more natural shape; trimming once per year, during Winter or early Spring, is enough.

Always trim at the right time; the shrubs that form the hedges usually bloom twice a year – summer and spring. The best time to trim is after these vegetative phases are over and growth is slow.

This way, less effort is required, and the topiary you create will last for a longer period. It’s best to trim, therefore, the period between April and May or September and October. However, this is not a rule, feel free to trim any time when the shrub’s foliage is overgrown.

How Far Back Can I Trim My Hedges?

The rule of thumb for trimming hedges is to cut back no more than a third of the total volume of the hedge at one time. This is enough to encourage new growth in the top half of the plant without causing serious damage to its overall wellbeing.

Is It OK To Trim Hedges In The Summer?

You should avoid trimming hedges to any great extent in the summer, as you will disturb the growth of the plant at a time when it may be flowering, but also you will impact the wildlife living in the plant. If you must tidy the bush, a modest amount of pruning can be done, but hedges need the summer to flourish.

Does Trimming A Hedge Make It Grow Thicker?

If you take care to identify weak spots in the hedge, trim the sides at the right time of year, and spend time determining the size of the hedge according to its type – evergreen and deciduous hedges have different needs – you should find that a hedge will grow thicker with conscientious trimming and pruning.

Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far, you have all the basic knowledge to be able to tame your thicket with some assurance. To maintain a good hedge, you owe it to yourself to know the hedge and to understand how it grows. If you treat it with care, you will be rewarded with a good looking border that maintains a pleasing shape with a minimum of fuss. And that, my friends, is worth the effort!

Mr X

I'm Jamie and I started TrimHedge to learn about hedge trimming and topiary and share my findings with you. I enjoy the sight of well formed foliage and enjoy helping you keep your hedges in good shape and your borders in order. To find out more about me, visit my About Page.

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