If you want happy healthy hedges you need to keep them in good shape, so knowing when to cut back and how often is important. Here’s what I’ve learned on this important aspect of hedge plant care.
Formative pruning keeps a new hedge plant in shape while its roots take hold, and established hedge plants benefit from maintenance trimming. Deciduous plants need pruning in Winter, Evergreen plants in early Spring, and both types of hedge can be trimmed in the Summer.
That’s the short answer in a nutshell just there for you, but it’s worth taking a moment to explore the topic a bit more, so I want to look at the tools and safety equipment you’ll need and some of the problems that might arise if you’re not careful with your cutting.
Why Should You Trim Your Hedges?
Plants grow and they are often home to a myriad of living creatures. Left to their own devices these plants can become unruly and develop diseases or infestations, which is nature taking its course. While I love the natural order of things, if you’ve got hedges in a domestic setting, it pays to keep check on them to make sure that good health maintained.
Before I dive into when to trim your hedge, there is an important distinction to make for the sake of clarity. There are two common types of cutting back:
These are different approaches and require different tools, but the idea is that you spend some time getting your hedges shaped the way you want, and then spend subsequent seasons keeping them in check.
If you are taking on some topiary, or just looking to harness your hedgerows, the process of shaping the plants is the most time consuming, but it will be really rewarding in the long run.
Formative pruning is carried out in winter, so that you can encourage dense growth while steering the direction of the new shoots to suit your needs.
If you are working with a newly planted hedge, it’s best to allow it a couple of years to strength its root system before tacking the top ends. Plants will grow in both directions, above and below ground, and by trimming the leaves you coerce growth upwards. This is fine when the plant is nicely established, but in the early stages, just let the plants grow and settle. If you want to give them some attention, why not chat with them a while, or show them inspirational pictures of the hedges they could become?
Maintenance trimming keeps the plant growing in the direction you want, hitting the balance between good growth and nice shape and it should happen between one and three times over the Summer. You should never cut back more than 25% of the growth, or a depth of 1 to 3 inches for most shrubs, as this will maintain the shape without causing detriment to the plant.
If you are simply aiming to keep large hedges in shape without the need for topiary level tidiness, then a single trim at the start of the summer should keep the spring growth at bay while giving the plant time to enjoy the sunny season.
If you are looking to maintain specific shapes, such as balls, in your shrubbery, the early trim at the start of the summer will need additional attempts, but you’ll need to use your best judgement to gauge when to trim your hedge by observing the effects of the weather on the togetherness of your topiary. However, try not to be over-zealous in your approach as too much trimming will have an adverse effect on your friendly foliage.
What Tools Should You Use?
Depending on the size of the task in hand, you’ll need the following gear in your gardening arsenal:
- Secateurs – for the finer details, particularly in the formative pruning stages, a good pair of secateurs will help you get deep into the deadwood to unleash your hedge’s awesome appearance. Check out our Guide to Secateurs to choose your perfect pruning partner!
- Shears – maintenance trimming will often require big blades for clean cuts and if you don’t have a big budget, or a big area to attack, then a good set of hand shears will see you right.
- Hedge Trimmer – to make light work of the big jobs, petrol or electric hedge trimmers will drive to victory with ease. I’ve got everything you need to know in my Hedge Trimmer Guide!
- Let’s not forget safety gear as well! Safety goggles and gloves are must-haves and it’s just common sense to use them so don’t argue!
- Groundsheets are a smart move in saving time on the clear-up. You could let the winds blow your leaves away, but that zen-like approach might not cut the mustard in sleepy suburbia!
When To Trim Your Hedge
As with good comedy, timing is everything, and the general rule with pruning is to do it in winter or early spring. This is when your plants will be dormant; the damage caused by pruning is limited and when the spring growth occurs it will respond to your cuts.
The nature of the pruning or trimming depends on the type of plant you’re addressing, whether it is deciduous (shedding its leaves in Autumn) or evergreen.
- Formative pruning only needs to happen in the first couple of years, while the roots are becoming established, and you will want to do it in Winter.
- Maintenance trimming can be carried out in the Summer.
- Similar to deciduous, you only need to this in the early years, but it is preferable to prune in the Spring.
- As with deciduous, the Summer time is the time for maintenance trimming.
Health and safety issues notwithstanding, there are a few things to be aware of when pruning and trimming.
Wild birds use your hedges as their homesteads and will choose bigger hedges for nesting. Nesting can take place between March and August so if you think there’s a risk of this happening in your hedgerows, please take the time to check first. Not only is it highly hazardous to the birds, if you’re in the UK, the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 makes it an offence to knowingly destroy the nest of a wild bird while it’s in use!
During the winter months your hedges will be a hive of activity for wildlife who will be feasting on the insects and fruits contained within. Where possible, prune as late in the season as you can, to give your garden guests the best feeding opportunities available. If you want more pointers on making your hedgerows a wonderful world for wildlife, I’ve got a great guide for you!
If you leave your pruning too late, and begin it after Spring has sprung you run the risk of impeding the growth of plants at an early stage. Should this happen, don’t stress too much, just know that you’re letting your plants relax a while and grow of their own accord for a while!
In summary, there is no one answer to the question of when to trim your hedge, but there are two fairly simple factors to consider. What type of trim are you doing – formative pruning on a new plant or maintenance trimming on something more established – and what type of plant is it – deciduous or evergreen. By taking the time to identify those answers, you can do the right trim at the right time and support your shrubs in being the best borders they can be.
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