How to Trim Hedges in 4 Easy Steps

hedge with archway that is only half trimmed, while the other side is overgrown

Trimming hedges is not as intimidating as it may seem. Even if you’re a DIY novice, this project is within your reach.

What makes a hedge?

You may wonder: What is the difference between bushes, shrubs, and hedges? 

Bushes and shrubs are the same thing and are used to create hedges.

Bushes and shrubs are low-growing, woody plants used for aesthetic or functional purposes in your landscape.

What is a hedge? Bushes or shrubs planted closely together for aesthetic or practical purposes but are often used for privacy or to delineate property lines in your landscape. 

There are two types of hedges you may come across: informal hedges and formal hedges. Formal hedges are pruned into a particular shape and kept very neat. Informal hedges are more natural and not shaped but are planted close enough that they do form a boundary or barrier.

Time your hedge trimming

You should prune most hedges in the late dormant season, meaning late winter or early spring. One notable exception: If you have hedges that bloom in early spring, trim those immediately after they bloom. 

Prune these in late winter or early spring:

✓ Boxwood hedges
✓ Camellia
✓ Butterfly bush
✓ Conifers
✓ Rose of Sharon
✓ Potentilla
✓ Japanese spirea

Prune these immediately after they bloom in the spring:

✓ Loropetalum bushes
✓ Mockorange
✓ Azaleas
✓ Lilac
✓ Forsythia
✓ Other early spring bloomers

The reason behind this is simple: Many flowering shrubs bloom on last year’s growth, also called “old growth” or “old wood.” Shortly after the flowers die off, they set buds for next year. So, you want to cut them back immediately after the flowers have turned brown and before they set their buds for next spring. If you wait until late winter or early spring to prune these shrubs, you’ll be cutting off this spring’s flower buds. 

Plants that bloom on new growth can be pruned in the late dormant season because they have not yet put out new growth or new buds.

Another exception is what horticulturists call the “three Ds” of pruning. If you have dead, damaged, or diseased branches, you can remove those any time of the year.

Remember to consult your HOA and city code before you plant new hedges. Most HOAs have regulations about where and how high a hedge can be. Some cities have similar ordinances in place.

Step-by-step trimming tips

Here are the top pruning tools you will need:

  • Curved pruning saw
  • Bypass hand pruners
  • Hand shears (also called hedge shears)
  • Ladder
  • Loppers
  • Protective equipment: ear protection, safety glasses

Note: Make sure your tools are sharp!

Step 1: Lay down a tarp or cut open a paper yard waste bag

This will help to catch debris and make cleanup a breeze. You won’t have to rake branches and debris off the grass.

Step 2: Remove any branches that are dead or diseased.

In addition to removing dead branches, use your hedge shears or loppers to cut out (remove completely) up to “one-third… of the oldest branches.” This will allow sunlight and air to reach the interior of the hedge.

Step 3: Trim the hedge to your desired shape.

Before you begin, there is another rule of one-third to remember: Don’t cut back any given branch more than ⅓ of its length. So, if you have a plant with 3-foot branches, remove no more than one foot of those branches each year.

Start slowly. Step back and look at the bush from time to time to see how the hedge is shaping up. If you are dead-set on a perfect cut, use a string line. Then, as you cut, make sure your shears are level with the string. It’s a fail-safe way to get straight lines every time.

Try to trim so that the bottom of the hedge is slightly wider than the top of the hedge. This lets sunlight through to the lower part of the hedge, which helps it to grow strong and full. If you have tall hedges, this is where the ladder will come in handy.

Step 4: Remove the tarp and compost the clippings.

You’re done! 

You may wonder why we didn’t mention gas, cordless, or electric trimmers. Many experts note that using these powered hedge trimmers or shearers is not the best choice for the health or beauty of the hedge. When you shear the plant, it causes growth on the outside of the plant but not on the inside. If you look in the interior of a regularly sheared hedge, you will see that the inside is completely brown. If you look on the inside of a hand-pruned hedge, you will see green growth because sunlight and air reach the interior and cause it to grow.

If you must use an electric trimmer, consider using it sparingly and along with hand pruning. Hand-pruned hedges require fewer trimming sessions, so even though pruning takes more time, you’ll be doing it less. Give hand-pruning a try to create a healthier, fuller hedge and avoid the negative effects of shearing.

FAQ

1. What kinds of plants grow well in a hedge?

Hedges are a popular choice for homeowners due to their beauty, function, and artistic potential. Popular choices include:

✓ Arborvitae
✓ Azalea
✓ Boxwood
✓ Camellia
✓ Cypress
✓ Forsythia
✓ Gardenia
✓ Holly
✓ Juniper
✓ Loropetalum
✓ Privet
✓ Spirea
✓ Viburnum
✓ Yew

There are so many more plants that can work in a hedge formation. Visit your state’s Cooperative Extension Service website to research plants that work well in your area. 

2. What kinds of questions should I ask before buying a particular plant?

Before you buy a particular plant, know its inherent growing traits and choose a species that will work well for your space. Ask yourself these questions: 

How tall does it normally grow?
How fast does it grow?
How wide will it be?
Does it need full sun or partial shade?
Am I interested in an evergreen hedge (flowering or non-flowering) or something deciduous (loses its leaves)?

Also, consider whether you want something that will be trimmed into an artificial shape or whether you are happy to let it grow into a more natural shape. Some plants are better for shaping than others, so choose a variety that suits your goals to avoid frustration down the road.

Hedging your bets

Armed with a little knowledge and the right tools, anyone can trim hedges in four easy steps. Remember to trim at the right time of year, use sharp tools, and step back to survey your work as you cut.

 
If this landscaping chore is too much for you to handle, contact a local professional today who can get your hedges trimmed in a jiffy.

Main Photo Credit: With Associates | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Sav Maive

Sav Maive is a writer and director based in San Antonio. Sav is a recent graduate from the University of Virginia and is a loving cat and plant mom.