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Hedge Cutting: A Beginner’s Guide

hedge cutting
by Ally North Ally North

Why prune your hedge?

They attract wildlife, keep out intruders, reduce noise and pollution, provide privacy and look beautiful - there’s no downside at all to growing a hedge! Oh wait - the pruning. It can seem a little daunting, especially if you trim your hedges as infrequently as I do so that it turns into a big job when I eventually get around to it. But pruning is well worth the effort, making your hedge stronger, healthier and easier to manage - an asset to your garden as opposed to something the council writes to you about (whistles innocently). I asked our hedge plant growers about the best time to cut hedges back, the safest and easiest ways of hedge cutting and vitally, when to cut hedges to avoid nesting birds.

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When to prune hedges

The best time for hedge pruning is from spring to late summer, but as this coincides with the nesting season, you’re going to have to be very vigilant. The RSPB recommends that you do your hedge trimming outside of these times, but as some birds nest earlier or later than others, you should still make a thorough examination of the hedge before you start, and down tools if you find an active nest. If anyone continues to cut a hedge containing an active nest, they’re liable for prosecution under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. If you have a flowering hedge, wait until it’s finished flowering for the year before you start to prune. Two or three light trims over the season are considered better for your hedge than one massive session, but you won’t have to trim your hedge at all over winter, as deciduous hedges will be dormant and even the evergreens will slow down.

bird nest in hedge

Tools for hedge trimming

Depending on the size and shape of your hedge and how much pruning it needs, you may need:

1. Secateurs

These small pruners are good for trimming individual branches and thicker stems on plants such as laurel or others with large leaves and a less dense framework. The precision work, in short!

2. Hedge shears

The next step up - these are good for small hedges and reaching into corners. If you’re just using these rather than a hedge trimmer, they’ll do a pretty good job but my advice would be to get a lightweight pair with the most comfortable grip you can find, as it’s a long and repetitive job. For taller hedges, you can get telescopic shears for reaching above your head.

3. Hedge trimmers

These electric tools can be corded or cordless, and you can also find battery powered versions. If your hedge is a long way from your plug socket, you’ll need to use an extension lead with your corded trimmer. They’re great for very large expanses of hedge, but they’re a bit riskier due to the fast moving blades, so you need to go slowly and take care. You shouldn’t use them above head height - if your hedge is taller than you are, think about investing in some long reach or telescopic trimmers. If using a corded version, always be aware of where the cord is so you don’t cut through it, and for extra safety, always use a circuit breaker.

hedge trimmers

4. Topiary shears

Fancy getting creative with your hedges? If you want to cut them into interesting shapes, you need specialist topiary shears, which are smaller and lighter than standard hedge shears (like a large pair of scissors) and can be operated with one hand for better control.

5. Rake or broom

For clearing up the trimmings afterwards!

How to prune a hedge

It’s a good idea to mark out the line or shape of your hedge before you start cutting - you can use a garden line (make your own out of string tied between two canes) or a spirit level. You may also want to mark the height you want your hedge to be - this should be a height that you find easy to manage.

It’s easiest to cut your hedge one section at a time, working your way downwards rather than along the length. Cut the sides first, then the top part. If your hedge is very tall, you might need a ladder for this bit.

Go slow, standing back every so often to check you’re happy with how the hedge looks. If you can, make the bottom of the hedge a little wider than the top, to allow sunlight to reach all of it. Keep cutting until you’re happy with the shape and size. Less is more - you can always trim it again in a few weeks!).

trimmed hedge

Grower’s top tips

  • To make it easier to gather up all the trimmings, spread a plastic sheet or tarp under the hedge you’re cutting, then when you’ve finished, just fold it up and throw the contents in the green bin or compost.
  • Keep all of your tools sharp and clean, so you can make clean, straight cuts that won’t let infection in. If you do cut diseased parts out of any plant, make sure you sterilise them before moving on to the next plant.

Hedge pruning safety

Only do your pruning in dry weather to reduce the chance of your tools slipping - this is especially important if you’re using an electric trimmer. Wear heavy duty gloves or gauntlets, closed toe shoes and glasses if you have them.

If you’re using a ladder, step ladders are more stable - make sure they’re fully extended and standing on level ground. If you have to use a leaning ladder, get someone else to hold it steady.

hedge trimming

What to do with the trimmings

Sweep or rake your hedge trimmings into a pile and gather them up to put into the green bin or compost heap. If you can’t easily bend down, you can use long handled leaf grabbers for this job. If you don’t have anywhere to dispose of them, you can throw the trimmings into a corner of the garden, where they’ll provide a useful habitat for insects before rotting down.

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