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How to Trim Hedges {Guide to Pruning}

When properly cared for, hedges can be beautiful ornamental additions to your garden. So how get here from a shapeless and scary shrub? Easy! Learn how to trim hedges! This guide will show you how and when to prune edges, and how to keep them thriving. 

Shaping plants into a formal hedge can be a wonderful way to create privacy or a backdrop in your garden, but it requires some maintenance to keep them looking good for the long term. Here are some tips on how to prune hedges, along with the tools to use, proper timing, and a few helpful tips.

Woman demonstrating how to trim hedges

How to Trim Hedges

Pruning hedges is very different than pruning trees. When pruning trees and shrubs I always suggest following the natural lines of the plant. The two exceptions to this rule are hedges and topiaries.

Because growing a number of plants together in a decorative shape fights against how the plants would naturally grow, it’s best to plan the hedge well and then keep up with pruning during its lifetime.

Here is everything you need to know about how to trim hedges.

Choose the Right Hedging Plants

First things first, make sure you’re growing a hedge with plants that respond well to being grown as a hedge. Hedging plants can be deciduous or evergreen; broad-leaf or conifers. The thing they all have in common is how they respond to heading cuts: by filling out.

The Best Plants to Use as Hedges

Plants suitable for hedging will be noted “hedging plants” or “topiaries” on their plant labels. Some popular varieties include:

  • boxwood (Buxus)
  • privet (Ligustrum)
  • yew (Taxus)
  • laurel (Laurus nobilis)
  • barberry (Berberis)
  • quince (Cydonia oblonga)
  • Euonymous, holly (Ilex)
  • juniper (Juniperus)
  • thuja (Arborvitae)
  • cedar (Cedrus)
  • firethorn (Pyracantha)
  • Viburnum

shrubs before pruning

 

shrubs after pruning

Start Trimming Hedges Young

Plants that are trained from a very young age make for the best hedge.

  • In the first two years, the plants will be cut back six to eight inches to encourage branching close to the core of the plant.
  • In the third year, the hedge can be shaped. This will determine its structure as it grows to its final mature size.

If the hedge isn’t shaped until after the plants have grown to their full size, there won’t be enough branching at the base to create a full hedge.

When the hedge is at the size and shape that you like it, the best way to maintain the look is to trim it frequently.
Hedges next to a house before trimming

 

bushes next to house after learning how to trim hedges

When to Trim Hedges

As a general rule, prune the hedge before the new growth blocks the sun from the lower leaves. As the lower leaves lose sunlight they begin to die off in favor of the new growth.

Some evergreens are quite quick growing and need to be pruned every four to six weeks in the growing season, while others may grow a bit slower and only need to be pruned once. The best way to determine how often to prune is to watch the growth and trim it before it begins to shade the leaves below.

Disclosure: this post was originally sponsored by Fiskars who provided me with the set of pruning tools listed next. 

How to Trim Hedges Easily with the Right Tools

Part of learning how to trim hedges is choosing the right tools to work with. Many people choose electric trimmers seemingly for convenience and ease, but they can actually damage your bushes.

Electric Trimmers vs. Hand Tools

Many people use electric trimmers to prune a hedge but hand tools give you a cleaner cut and less damage to the branches.

An electric hedging tool will tear and rip the branches leaving uneven cuts, while a hand tool leaves clean cuts that heal nicely and keep the plant healthy.

Uneven cuts stress out the plant and are an open invitation for disease. Plus, there are many benefits to silent gardening as I previously wrote about in this post on Silent Lawn Care.

trimming hedges with trimming shears

Prepare to Prune

One of the most important steps in learning how to trim hedges is the prep work. Before trimming your hedge, clear your workspace. Remember it’s always best to wear safety goggles and gloves. Additionally, you may wish to drop a tarp below your hedge to catch your clippings in order to make cleanup easier.

It can be challenging to maintain a uniform shape when pruning a formal hedge. It helps to use guidelines as reference points on where to cut and how much.

You can achieve this by running a string line tied tautly between stakes along the bottom of the hedge to guide how much of the side to remove and running a string line along the top to guide how much of the top to remove.

using a string line to trim a hedge straight

Clean and sharpen your tools before pruning. Keep a bucket of soapy water and a rag on hand to clean your tools in between plants if you are pruning multiple hedges. As cuts open up the wood to disease, it’s important to make sure you are keeping your tools clean.

Manual Hedging Tools

Here are some of my favorite hedge trimming tools that help me keep my own shrubs in shape.

PowerGear2 Pruners

 

small pruning shears for learning how to trim hedges

Use PowerGear2 Pruners to clear out any dead, dying, or diseased wood. The branches of a hedge are thick and woody, so you will want a powerful set of pruners to make quick work of the project. PowerGear2 Pruners give you more power than standard pruners so you can cut thicker branches and use less effort.

POWER TOOTH® Softgrip® Folding Saw (7″)

small saw for trimming hedges manually

Keep a POWER TOOTH® Softgrip® Folding Saw (7″) handy for cutting branches thicker than 3/4″ in diameter for PowerGear2 Pruners and 5/8” for standard pruners. The saw blades are incredibly sharp, so it’s best to keep it in the folded position until you need to make a cut. The good news is that it will cut the branch easily with those sharp teeth!

PowerGear2™ Hedge Shears (23″)

hedge pruning tips and tricks

The PowerGear2™ Hedge Shears are smaller and lighter than standard hedge shears and yet more powerful. This makes them very easy to use, especially if you are pruning a large hedge.

Start pruning at the bottom of the hedge and work your way up so that cut branches and leaves at the top can freely fall to the ground.

Shear the hedge in shallow layers to make sure you don’t accidentally expose bald spots in some of the shrubs. Position the blades at a right angle to the branches to get the cleanest cut. Be sure not to twist the branches or approach them at an odd angle, as they won’t cut cleanly.

If you use a string line, ensure that your shears are consistently parallel with your shrub to stay on track. If you tend to go off line a little bit it’s not going to make a huge difference; the plant will grow and fill in the gaps. With practice, it will become second nature.

Power-Lever® Extendable Hedge Shears (25″–33″) 

Woman using extendible hedge shears for pruning bushes

If you have a high hedge, then the Power-Lever® Extendable Hedge Shears will make the job a whole lot easier! Extendable handles make high, hard-to-reach, or awkward cuts easier.

If the hedge is short enough, you don’t have to climb up and down a ladder a bunch of times. If the hedge is taller, you still benefit from telescoping shears because you can use a shorter and more stable ladder. This is particularly helpful in small spaces.

Power-Lever® Grass Shears

trimming hedges with grass shears

After pruning your hedge, go back with Power-Lever® Grass Shears and PowerGear2 Pruners to clean up any of the little bits that pop up after shearing is complete and to remove any leafless branches that protrude.

Grass shears are my go-to tool for finishing work. You can see how great they work on decorative topiaries here.

How to Repair Damaged Hedges

If your hedge has become overgrown, or is bare or dying back, it can be hard to repair. Evergreen plants will not generally fill back in; it is better to replace the individual plants. Deciduous hedges will come back over time if carefully pruned when dormant.

Either way, it’s best to keep up with the job throughout the season and maintain your hedge properly than to fix problems once they arise.

shrubs damaged from excessive hedge pruning

Read More About Pruning

Pruning is just about one of my favorite things to do out in the garden. I love to shape trees and bring out their natural beauty. There are many people who are quite afraid of pruning and these guides are a great way to take the fear out of it!

Comments

  1. I know that hedges are supposed to have some kind of shape to them, but mine are so overgrow. I know they are due for a trim. I like that this article provides advice and pictures and tips, like finding the shape you want, and trimming them often to maintain that shape.

    Reply

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