How to Trim Hedges: A Guide to Perfectly Pruned Hedges

How to trim hedges-A woman carefully trimming a boxwood shrub using manual hedge shears.
My Garden Life
June 19, 2023
Table of Contents

Growing hedges—tightly spaced shrubs, bushes, or trees—is an excellent way to protect a property’s privacy while establishing attractive borders and barriers.

Regularly trimming and pruning your hedges improves their aesthetic value while promoting healthy growth. Let’s review the basics of hedge trimming, including timing, tools, and techniques.

When to Trim Hedges

The best time to trim or prune hedges is in late winter or early spring, before new growth begins. Trimming during winter dormancy gives plants plenty of time to recover before the growing season starts.

If you need to do some additional trimming during the summer months, it’s best to wait until after flowering has finished so that you don’t damage buds or blooms.

Tools Needed for Trimming Hedges

Loppers, Shears, Saws & General Garden Tools

Manual trimming can be performed with loppers or shears that squeeze closed to snip off branches and foliage. Hand saws are useful for removing thicker branches, while a rake, buckets, and a wheelbarrow are helpful for removing clippings.

How to trim hedges-woman using manual hedge shears to trim a boxwood shrub with purple phlox and white alyssum in the background.

Powered Hedge Trimmers

If your hedges are too large or dense to effectively cut back manually, there are two types of powered trimmers to consider: electric or gas. Both types employ long, toothed blades that oscillate forward and backward to create a cutting motion.

Man using an electric hedge trimmer demonstrates how to shape yew shrubs into a hedge.

Electric trimmers may be corded or battery-powered. Compared to gas models, electric trimmers are generally less powerful and less durable. However, they’re lower-priced and are simpler to operate.

Gas trimmers are more powerful and better able to handle large jobs. The downsides are: they’re pricier, heavier, noisier, and require the handling of gasoline.

Safety Equipment and Precautions When Hedging Shrubs

If you’re using a powered trimmer, you should wear safety gear to protect yourself against flying debris. Basic safety equipment includes long pants and sleeves, safety glasses, gloves, and ear protection. While operating the machine, always use both hands, maintain a safe distance from other people, and be extra careful around glass windows.

Man using a gas-powered hedge trimmer to trim a row of shrubs is outfitted with safety gear including gloves, ear protection and safety glasses.

If you’re using a corded electric trimmer, keep the cord clear from water sources (pools, ponds, puddles). If you’re using a gas trimmer, carefully add the recommended fuel (usually an oil and gas mix) to the machine using a funnel and promptly clean up spills. Never add fuel to the trimmer while it’s running or hot.

Wildlife protection tip: always check for nesting birds before removing branches from a tree.

How to Use a Powered Hedge Trimmer

Step 1: Preparing the Area

First, clear the area of items like potted plants or lawn furniture. Remove loose debris such as sticks or twigs from the hedge. Before turning on your powered trimmer, make sure that there are no power lines, water sources, or other hazards in harm’s way, and make sure that nobody else is near enough to get hit by flying debris.

A man is using an electric hedge trimmer in a tight space between a brick wall and the front porch of a house with a potentially hazardous array of planters, watering can, patio furniture, and a trailing electrical cord in the vicinity.

Step 2: Checking and Starting a Hedge Trimmer

Always follow manufacturer instructions and safety guidelines for starting and operating a powered trimmer. Additionally, before using your machine, perform a brief inspection while it’s powered off and unplugged. Check for loose screws or bolts and make sure that the safety guards are securely in place.

Electric hedge trimmers are easily turned on with a switch or button. Starting a gas trimmer typically involves flipping an on/off switch, pulling a choke lever, pressing a primer bulb, and pulling a starter cord.

Step 3: Operating a Hedge Trimmer

Always operate your powered trimmer using both hands: one on the handle and one on the grip. Keep your arms close to your body at all times in order to maintain steady control over the machine.

Man with an electric hedge trimmer demonstrates the proper way to hold a hedge trimmer using both hands as he shears a yew shrub into a hedge.

Trim the vertical sides of a hedge first, using up and down sweeping motions. Avoid holding the trimmer still in one spot for too long, as this can result in uneven cuts. When working on the top surface, continue using sweeping motions but orient them horizontally instead of vertically.

Step 4: Hedge Trimmer Maintenance

After using a powered trimmer, wipe down the blades with a rag that’s been dampened with soapy water. Regular cleaning prevents sap and debris from getting stuck in the blades, affecting performance and product longevity.

If your machine is struggling to make clean cuts or is frequently getting jammed, the blades might be dull. Sharpen blades with a flat file, taking care not to remove more metal than necessary.

In addition to blade maintenance, follow manufacturer instructions for caring for your trimmer’s motor, such as cleaning the air filter to prevent overheating.

Shaping Hedges

Creating interesting and attractive hedge shapes is a fun challenge for gardeners of all levels! With the right tools and a bit of practice, you can create beautiful designs that add visual interest to your landscape.

Common Hedge Shapes and Designs

Hedges come in all shapes and sizes, from towering privacy screens to short walkway borders. A common design is the “formal hedge,” which consists of a tight rectangular row of identical plants that are shaped to appear as a single uninterrupted line.

A colorful layered planting featuring flowering annuals in the foreground, a low boxwood hedge in the middle, and tall daylilies in the background.

Other popular hedge shapes include curved lines, circles or ovals, zigzags or chevrons, and spirals or cones.

A row of tall evergreen shrubs each sheared into a different whimsical shape including spirals, balls, oval and pyramidal shapes.

Shaping Hedges with a Trimmer

If you want to make a shape, you need a plan. Use a pencil and paper to sketch your desired shape before you begin trimming. Pay attention to dimensions and make sure that there is enough raw material in the shrubs to permit the shape you have in mind.

You can’t undo a cut. So, work section by section and progress gradually. Don’t tackle large areas or deep trims all at once.

A woman wearing lime green gardening gloves is using hand shears to carefully trim a low boxwood hedge one small section at a time.

Proceed carefully when attempting to make curves or angles, and remember that curved lines are much trickier than straight lines. Depth perception is key, so it helps to frequently take a few steps back to see how your work looks from different angles.

Once the desired shape has been formed, maintain your hedges over time by pruning and clipping as needed throughout the growing season. Minor trimmings every few weeks are typically sufficient for maintaining attractive and healthy plants.

How Far Back Can You Trim a Hedge?

How far back you trim your hedges is an aesthetic choice, but you should also consider the effect that your work may have on the growth and health of your trees and shrubs.

A freshly trimmed hedge along a paved walkway with stem trimmings still littering the full length of the path.

Trimming and pruning promote new growth, but cutting a plant back too severely can harm or even kill it. To avoid overdoing it, don’t remove more than one-third of a plant or a hedge at any one time.

Additionally, avoid excessive pruning in late summer. Severe late summer pruning can result in the growth of vulnerable new shoots that won’t survive winter frosts.

How to Trim Hedges Evenly

To make precise, straight lines for a formal hedge, use string and stakes. Place stakes in the ground at intervals and run a string across them to designate the desired shape. Then, trim off all of the material that extends past the string line.
To correct areas of unevenness, use a rake to scrape away loose bits and pieces, then use scissors or shears to remove overgrown or out-of-place branches and foliage.

Shrubs that Make Good Hedges

You’re probably familiar with many of the most popular shrubs for hedging because they’re some of the most reliable shrubs for general landscaping as well. Here are five shrubs that handle hedging especially well:

Boxwood (Buxus microphylla)

The petite size of boxwood foliage makes it a good choice for small, low hedges. Popular uses for boxwoods are knot gardens, mazes, edging borders, topiary, or creating a formal hedge. Deer don’t like boxwood so this is an added advantage if you struggle with deer visiting your garden. Boxwood is an evergreen shrub that naturally grows to a height of 3-4’ (.9-1.2m) so assume that this is the tallest boxwood hedge you could attain.

A tidy little boxwood hedge runs along a brick paved walkway with white gravel mulch surrounding the hedge.

Yew (Taxus species)

Yew is a long-time favorite for home landscaping. The fine, needle-like foliage forms a dense screen for privacy, creating a barrier, or a solid backdrop for colorful flowering plants. Yew species are available that reach mature heights between 4-12’ so if your goal is a tall hedge, you have options. Whether hedged, or allowed to grow naturally, yews are a reliable source of color and structure in the winter landscape.

Tall yew hedges create a background for a flowering shrub and perennial border that is edged by a gravel pathway.

Wax Leaf Privet (Ligustrum japonicum)

Popular in Southern landscapes, wax leaf privet handles pruning beautifully making it an excellent shrub for hedging. Mature shrubs can reach 6-10’ (1.8-3m). This is a good choice if your goal is to create a tall hedge to provide as much privacy as possible, hide an unsightly view, or even create a garden “room”. Wax leaf privet produces tiny white flowers in summer that have a sweet scent.

Neatly trimmed privet hedges create a natural fence between tightly spaced houses.

Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)

Arborvitae is a long-standing favorite for creating a hedge. The incredibly dense foliage is outstanding for creating a privacy screen, wind break, or creating a backdrop for a colorful flower border. Arborvitae handle hedging very well, and they have good tolerance to cold winters, making them a popular selection for Northern regions. Arborvitae are available in a wide range of sizes so when shopping, make sure the species and variety are suited to your intended use.

A row of conical-shaped arborvitae shrubs create a privacy screen between a road and a residential area.

Forsythia (Forsythia hybrids)

Forsythia is a deciduous shrub that is easily recognizable in the spring landscape when its branches are covered with golden yellow flowers. Forsythia is one of the very first shrubs to bloom in the spring. Bright green foliage emerges to make a beautiful, dense hedge for summer privacy.

If allowed to grow naturally, a forsythia shrub can reach a mature height in the range of 6-8 feet (1.8-2.4m). They handle hedging very well, but keep in mind that forsythia set flower buds on new growth. Don’t wait too long after flowering to do your pruning. Pruning branches later in the summer or in winter will remove areas of flower buds and result in fewer flowers in the spring.

A forsythia hedge covered with yellow flowers creates a bright contrast between a white picket fence in the foreground and a white colonial style home in the background.

Creating Beautiful Landscape Designs

Dense, uniform, green hedges are attractive and functional, but privacy barriers can also be colorful and full of life. For more inspiration, peruse the featured plants in our guide 12 Small Trees and Shrubs to Attract Butterflies & Birds.

A charming small space garden patio surrounded by colorful flowering perennials and shrubs, pots of annuals, and hedged evergreen shrubs.

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