How and When to Trim Hedges

Before pulling out the yard-work clothes and purchasing a trimmer of some kind there are some things you should consider.  What is the best tool for the job? Do you want to trim new growth to provide basic uniformity or do you want to “sculpt” the plants in question?   Do your elderly neighbors close the bathroom curtains and should you work towards creating a “privacy hedge”?  Hopefully this article will outfit you with the information you need to answer these questions the best way for your situation.

There was a time where trimming hedges required what looked like an oversized pair of scissors, powered only by the user until the job was done.  While the human element is still part of the equation today’s tools can cut project time and required effort considerably.   The decision when picking the right tool for the job has to do with two things: The size of the project (how tall, how big around, how hearty are the plants in question) and the size of the user (physical limitations, endurance, heart health etc).   Before getting into more detail about how to trim hedges, consider the information below when shopping for the trimming tools you will need .

How to Choose Hedge Trimming Tools

  1. Electric Hedge Trimmers – These come in numerous sizes.  There are some that appear not much larger than hair dryer and they range up  to about the same size as their gas powered counterparts with blade bars averaging around 20 inches.  With recent advancements in battery technology there are a few cordless/rechargeable types eliminating the need for cumbersome extension cords or on site power.

    An electric trimmer will typically suit those that are smaller in stature or those trying to conserve elbow grease.  Powered by an electric motor they do not require complicated fuel mixtures and this allows for reduction in weight.  The reduction in weight is also what limits overall cutting power.  Do not misunderstand.  These trimmers are ideal for smaller jobs where it is truly a “trim” that you are looking for.  It is only when shaping and with dealing with larger more mature plants and when there are more of them,  that the benefits to their users may be outweighed by the necessity of a larger, more powerful trimmer.  The electric trimmer has its uses but to expect that it is BEST tool for the job in all situations highly unlikely as they are simply not as effective for as many trimming situations as a gas powered trimmer.

  2. Gas Powered Hedge Trimmers – The gas powered trimmer is for the enthusiast, someone with a lot of shrub to cut…someone with a strong lower back.  The weight of these trimmers alone is not substantial with even some of the most robust models weighing in at around ten pounds.  However, after you combine this with the vibration of double sided blade bars between 20 and 30 inches long, a sloshing fuel tank, and a trimming project that will have you bending, stretching, and turning for some extended period and this tool may begin to look and feel larger before the project’s end.  There are a number of small/medium sized trimmers with performance potential that is not much different or better than the electrics mentioned above.  If you want a trimmer that can handle tough, gnarled, or significant amounts of hedge trimming shop for something with a blade 22 inches or longer.  As far as brands and reliability I have found that there are strong opinions ( Ford v. Chevy and Pepsi v Coke etc etc)  and this is not an endorsed article, so you may want to check with professionals in your area as far as picking a brand.  The gas powered trimmer comes in many variants for the many sizes of projects they are intended for.  Check the specifications of any trimmer to make sure that it will do the job without being unwieldy, overkill, and more costly than you are going to need.
  3. Manual Hedge Trimmers – If your budget will not allow it, your project does not demand it, or if you just like to do things the old fashioned way there are still plenty of manual hedge trimmers available.  What will more likely be the case when choosing to go “green” in this situation is that you will be purchasing and using a combination of tools:  A large, traditional clipper, a “lopper” for the thickest branches, and a “pruner” for the smaller, finer work.  It will take an eye for detail to ensure consistency and plenty of time on one’s hand (hands that will soon be very tired) to trim more than just a very limited amount of hedge or shrubbery by hand.  Where the other two categories were based largely on utility recommendations, I would say that the hand held option is for someone who truly loves the outdoors and spending time to themselves outside, because it is obviously not the fastest or most effective way to complete the same job.

Whether you go elelctric, manual or gas powered, you will find all the appropriate and necessary safety gear nearby.  Invest in all the right gear so you don’t end up trimming yourself along with your hedges.

When is the Best Time to Trim Your Hedges?

Just like humor, intimacy, and throwing hand grenades, timing is everything.  Your climate can determine what time is best for your shrubbery, but these general suggestions will likely apply.  If April showers produced May flowers on your shrubs, then plan on pruning your hedges just as this part of their growth cycle comes to end.  If the summer time is when your plants are procreating then take note of this and plan on pruning them just before their blooming begins.

Either of these times is a good time to trim away branches that may appear dead, broken, brown, or diseased.  Whether you plan to keep the shrub looking natural or have more specific shapes that you are trying to create you will do well to have someone available or to take numerous breaks to ensure that you are trimming uniformly and not creating gaps or causing a plant to become “lopsided”.

***TIP FROM THE PROFESSIONALS***

Before doing any trimming you can either lay down a tarp around the hedges or you can use your hose to thoroughly soak the ground around them.  The tarp will allow you easily gather the trimmings without raking through your mulch or stooping to pick up each piece.  The  idea behind wetting the mulch is that it will allow you to use  leaf blower to blow the trimmings away from around the bushes to make them easier to retrieve while not blowing your mulch around.

You can stimulate the growth of the plant by thinning out the oldest branches to allow air, light and water to get to new growth and you can affect the direction of the growth by choosing which lateral branches you choose to cut and which ones you choose to leave.

Ultimately how often and to what extent you trim your shrubs has to do with the type of shrub and what region it is located in.

  • Deciduous Shrubs – should be trimmed in late winter or early spring while they are dormant.  They may need a mid-summer trim as well if they are a “formal shrub” that determines the shape of a walkway or other landscape feature.
  • Flowering Shrubs – trimming should be done 4-6 weeks after blooming is finished.

***TIP FROM THE PROFESSIONALS***

Avoid cutting into old wood late in the summer or the new shoots may not mature in time to live through winter weather.  This can seriously damage the plant health and make your shrubs look bad.

As far as shaping or sculpting your shrubs you will want to consider your climate.  Snow will accumulate on the tops large, wide, or flat bushes.  While some are hearty enough to handle this, consider rounding or giving your hedge a narrower or more conical top if it likely to be damaged by the weight of frequent snow fall.

How to Trim Traditional Hedgerows

If you do choose to go with a traditional row of flat front of flat top hedges, the procedure is fairly simple.

You will need:

  • A mallet or hammer
  • Wooden stakes
  • Tape measure
  • Spool of twine
  • Hedge trimmer
  • Level

After choosing the height and width appropriate for your landscaping, hammer in a wooden stake at the determined height at the edge of the hedgerow at both ends.  Leave enough room at the top to tie off your twine.  Take the spool of twine (use yellow, or red, or some other color you will be able to easily see) and tie it to both stakes.  Remember you will be trimming in this area so tie it closely enough to use as a guide but not so close that you will cut the twine.  Your yard and landscaping is unlikely to be perfectly flat or level and even a professional will be unable to make it perfect, but use your twine and your level to adjust to as close to a flat line as is possible.   After ensuring your twine and height are correct simply trim everything above the line and nothing below it to give your hedges a flat, uniform look.  Once the flat surface of the top has been created you can use the same process to flatten the front the of the hedge using the now flat top to determine your downward stroke.  You may want to try this on a small scale in the back or on the side of your yard if you are not sure and do not want to risk ruing your “curb appeal”

How to Create Privacy Hedges

Maybe more than anything else we have covered, these hedges will have a lot to do with your climate.  Their very nature implies that they will be bigger and knowing what will grow large enough to shield your from your neighbors…or them from you them may require consulting a local nursery.  I can tell you that Leyland cypress (starts as a hedge, ends up as a tree)  will provide an excellent wall of privacy and they require very little maintenance.  These are popular and grow heartily in many Southern states in the US.  Japanese or Wax Privet grows very well in places like California and New Mexico and there are many places where bamboo will do the trick if other, more traditional hedges will not.

Make sure to consult with local nurseries and professionals before buying plants that would conflict with Home owners associations or may produce fruit or flowers that can be messy or aggravate allergies.

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