How to cut, prune & trim hedges: the ultimate beginner guide
Updated 2022: Whether you have just planted a hedge or inherited one in your garden this guide will show you how to cut a hedge in the most efficient way.
Ignore those fears that cutting a hedge is a full weekend of drama. It really doesn’t have to be with the correct technique and tools. Hedges provide our gardens with a soft natural boundary that helps provide privacy and greenery in the garden so they are worth looking after.
This guide will provide you with all the tips, tricks and hacks to keep your garden hedges looking fantastic all year. Let me show you how to cut hedges the proper way!
How to cut a hedge guide
- Tools for trimming a hedge
- How to trim a hedge
- Why hedge shape is really important
- What’s the best time of year to cut hedges?
- How to tidy up hedge trimmings
- Can I compost hedge clippings?
- Renovating an old hedge
- Looking after your hedge trimming tools
Tools for cutting a hedge
The first thing to address is that you have the correct tools to trim and clip your hedge. Even before you establish whether your hedge is formal or informal, evergreen or deciduous, large or small; the correct tools for the job are essential. Make sure any electric or petrol powered tools are in good working order and have been serviced.
The below tools are useful when cutting hedges.
- Electric hedge cutters
- Manual hedge cutters or sheers
- A bucket/wheelbarrow
- Protective equipment such as goggles or steel toe capped boots
Electric Hedge Trimmers / Cutters
For most hedges, an electric trimmer is going to be preferable if you’re poor on time or technique. You have a variety of options when it comes to powered hedge clippers whether they be petrol powered or electric. For most residential gardeners an electric set of trimmers are the best option. Leave the diesel fumes and industrial hedge trimmers to the professionals who cut hedges day in day out.
I always opt for a cordless set of hedge trimmers, like my Ryobi set, as you don’t have to worry about cutting through the chord or getting tangled. Battery-powered cordless hedge trimmers are my preferred tool for beginners, easy to use and move with
You can focus your efforts on trimming your hedges effectively instead. Depending on the size of your hedge I have multiple batteries charged so I can swap them out and carry on cutting. Waiting 80 mins between charges can turn a couple of hours of hedge clipping into a full day affair!
Handheld Topiary shears
I must admit there’s something really satisfying about clipping hedges with handheld quality shears. The noise, cleanness of the cut and general action really satisfies my inner gardening zen. However, these will take longer to use and I wouldn’t start off with hand shears if you’re new to hedge clipping.
It’s a definite skill and should be kept for either very large-leaved evergreen shrubs (as it prevents crispy dried snagged leaves which clippers can cause), topiary or experienced gardeners. That’s not to say you shouldn’t give them a go but it may be quite frustrating for a new gardener as there is a knack to them.
The benefit of handheld topiary shears is the finish. They’re razor-sharp if well maintained and give a cut like no other for a tightly clipped box or topiary. They also make a lovely swoosh noise too and can become quite relaxing to use when skilled!
How to cut a hedge
Clipping or trimming a hedge with electric or petrol powered trimmers is relatively straightforward. The first cut may be the deepest as they say but once you start you’ll be trimming with ease in no time! By cutting your hedges regularly it helps encourage bushy dense growth, ideal for a garden boundary.
Thick lush hedges offer privacy in your garden and can also help deter unwanted visitors if you catch my drift!
You can either prune your hedges with:
This depends on the type of hedge and finish you want. Let’s take a look at both hedge cutting methods.
How to trim a hedge with electric clippers
Step 1: First make sure you’re wearing all the necessary safety equipment.
When cutting hedges with electric equipment always make sure you have gloves, goggles and protective footwear. You’re also going to want to make sure your tools are clean, fully charged if battery-powered and in good working order.
Step 2: How much to cut off hedges
Most hedges benefit from a light trim twice or three times a year to keep them neat.
When cutting any hedge aim to trim off between 1-4 inches of fresh green growth for regularly maintained hedges.
If your hedge needs more than this taking off consider a hard prune using loppers to remove thick woody growth. You can read more on that here.
Step 3: For formal hedges use a line of string for a straight edge
Using canes and a line of string tied horizontally between them can help create a neat clean top to your hedge. This is particularly useful for very long or formal hedges.
Step 4: Start by working from the bottom of your hedge upwards.
Using a wand-like action from bottom to top start to cut your hedge. The reason for this is you will get a better cut due to more visible control and it’s far safer than a top to bottom approach which could lead to injury if you slip. Use a sweeping action from bottom to top
Take your time as it’s better to take off smaller sections of a hedge than go too deep and end up snagging your way through thicker internal branches.
Step 5: Keep your hedge clippers level
Keep your hedge trimmers horizontal rather than poiting into the hedge for n even cut. Hedge clippers are only meant for the softer leafy growth only and not woody material. If you need to fully renovate a thick woody hedge see my guide below.
Ensure your not stagging your clippers. If you find your hedge clippers snagging then they either need a sharpen or the material you’re trying to cut is too thick. If too thick then try using loppers to cut back the woodier material first.
Step 6: Stand back to check your levels
It’s a good idea to keep standing back to check your levels. Afterall you can always cut more off but can’t put it back!
Step 7: Recycle your hedge clippings
Nearly all clippings can be recycled on your compost heap. To speed up the breakdown of evergreen clippins use a garden shredder to cut them into smaller pieces. Be careful with sharp or throny hedges like Berberis or Hawthorn as these thorns can make your compost incredibly uncomfortable to handle.
Step 8: Mulch your hedge after each trim
Mulching is a good idea especially for young or new hedges. It’s a way of helping keep moisture in and add a slow release feed after cutting. A good peat free organic compost or leaf mould mulch at the base of the hedge can help new hedges establish.
How to cut a hedge with hand shears
It is really the same action with hand shears as it is for electric hedge trimmers although there is more skill involved with hand sheers. This is because you’re not just moving them in a wand fashion but also opening and closing the shears to allow them to cut.
Step 1: Ensure your hand sheers are sharp
You’re also going to need to clean and sharpen hand shears a lot more frequently to give them the sharp edge they require. The end result is well worth it when your hedges are crisp and clean though! The cleaner cuts heal quicker and will stop hedges from going brown and crispy after a trim like you sometimes see with the rougher hedge trimmer cuts.
Step 2: Cut the hedge slow and steady
My advice with hand sheers is to take a little and often off the hedges when trimming them until you are comfortable. Hold the sheers vertically when clipping and trimming the side of a hedge. Again trim from the bottom to the top
Step 3: Clean & disinfect your sheers between hedges
When cutting Box or other formal hedges cleaning your sheers inbetween hedges is vital. This is because of plant health and pests like Box Blight or fungal infections. Hand sheers are easy to clean by dipping in a bucket with a mix of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.
Step 4: Rotate the sheers when cutting the top
Rotating the shears so they are horizontal will help you cut the top of a hedge. Its far easy than the awkward lean if yoiu hold them horizontally.
Step 5: Recycle your clippings and mulch the hedge
Just like the electric method, make sure you compost your clippings and then mulch any newly planted hedges.
The shape of your hedge is really important
The shape of your hedge is incredibly important to the health of your hedgerow. Whilst you may see a perfectly clipped square topiary hedge in formal gardens. However, in reality, most gardens don’t have the open space to accommodate such a clean square finish with the necessary sunlight levels for a healthy hedge of this kind.
You need to camber your hedge shape so it’s slightly narrower at the top than at the bottom, especially on larger hedges.
If you don’t give your hedge a ‘batter’ then the bottom of the hedge will end up receiving less light and then struggle. What you will end up with is lots of lush growth on the top of your hedge and a weak hedge at the bottom. It also has a secondary benefit that a square-topped hedge will potentially suffer far more from snowfall than one with a camber or batter.
If snow sits and builds upon the top of your hedge the chances are the weight will crush and break off the edges branches.
A batter or camber helps the snow slide off quickly before it builds up.
Clipping Evergreen or Deciduous Hedges
With hedges, you’re either going to be clipping an evergreen variety (such as Box, Privet or Cherry Laurel) that keeps its colour all year round or a deciduous hedge (such as Hawthorn or Beech) that loses its leaves in the winter. Understanding which type of hedge you have is key to knowing when to cut them.
When is the best time to cut hedges?
The best time to trim or cut your hedges depends on whether they are evergreen or deciduous, the speed at which they grow and the ‘neatness’ you want from them. I cut both my evergreen and deciduous hedges twice a year early spring and later summer.
Evergreen hedges keep their leaves all year round.
Deciduous hedges drop or partially drop their leaves in the winter.
Some larger leaved evergreen I tend to only cut once in mid-August especially if they are younger hedges. If you cut twice a year then you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a nice neat hedgerow in your garden.
March or August is the best time to cut your garden hedges in the UK
As a general rule of thumb, you need to make sure you’re not cutting hedges when birds may be nesting in them. In the UK this can be any time between February until August. Which may sound highly inconvenient for the time-poor gardener.
What I would say is that this time frame depends on whereabouts you live, the frequency of birds and whether your area is hedgerow dense ie there’s more chance for birds to nest elsewhere. They usually avoid noisy residential areas if there’s a quieter hedgerow nearby.
I always pull back parts of the hedge before I clip – usually in early March and then in August – to check for nests. I also know roughly every year where for example the blackbird’s nest and other species so I time my trimmings around that. If I find one that’s being used I then leave that section of hedge.
You really don’t want to be clipping in April or May when birds are likely to be nesting there. Sometimes you may have no choice, especially if removing a hedge for landscaping, but it’s best to check and try and be as considerate to our flying friends as possible. Bird boxes and other nesting options can help birds choose other locations.
How many times a year should I cut my hedge?
This really depends on the type of hedge you have whether it’s super formal, informal, slow or fast-growing.
As a minimum, I would cut all hedges at least twice a year.
For more formal hedges this may be up to 5 or 6 times a year.
Cleaning up Hedge Trimmings
There’s a lot of advice online and in textbooks that using a tarpaulin is necessary to catch the hedge clippings. Now, this is subjective but in all my experience I never use a tarp. I opt for a brush and dustpan or use a lawnmower to collect my trimmings. The only situation where a tarpaulin would be useful is if you are clipping a formal parterre or knot garden into gravel.
In this case, a matt or tarp can be a real time-saver when it comes to collecting your trimmings. Otherwise, I find a tarp more fuss than it’s worth to be honest!
Composting hedge clippings
With the exception of Hawthorn and Pyracanthus hedges which have vicious sharp thorns, nearly all other hedgerow material can be composted. I don’t compost the thorny stuff as I quite like not having my hands spiked when I’m moving compost.
If you’re composting evergreen leaves or larger hedge leaves then I’d recommend mowing over them on the lawn to help cut them up further. Then simply add them to your compost bin where they will break down considerably faster.
Another point to note is the mix of brown (carbon) material to green (nitrogen) material in your compost bin. Hedge clippings are surprisingly high in brown carbon materials so I always add some grass clippings as well to even out the balance and speed up breakdown.
Renovating an old out of shape hedge
Now you may have moved house and found yourself with a very old or out of control hedge. The immediate thought was maybe let’s get rid of it and start again. However, you can relatively easily renovate an old hedge if you have some patience. It is also a lot cheaper and much less effort than removing hedging and starting again.
It may sound brutal but you need to cut the hedge down to around 2ft to kick start new growth both at the base and the new ‘top’ of the hedge. This is by far the best way to revive an old hedge.
Using a chainsaw cut through the existing hedge in sections until you’re at the 2ft mark. Then it is simply a case of waiting to see the new growth emerging and then trimming twice a year as if it’s a new hedge altogether.
You can see the new growth after just 3 weeks here on this renovated Privet and Hawthorn hedge. Trust me when I say I’ve done this on some really awful hedges and they have all come back with a bit of patience and TLC.
Looking after your hedge cutting tools
It goes without saying that looking after your tools and keeping them sharp is essential. It’s really a false time saving to just put your tools back once you’re done. If I can give you one top tip it is to oil them both before and after you use them at the very least.
Oiling your garden tools will prevent rust, keep them lubricated and keep them in good working order. I use Japanese Camelia oil (you hardly need any).
Hand shears will need sharpening after each use to keep them razor sharp. Electric trimmers don’t need as much sharpening but a good clean and oil will help keep them functioning for many years!
Hedge Cutting Summary
Hedge trimming really doesn’t need to be a huge effort if you keep on top of your trimming and plan in advance. With the right tools and approach, hedge cutting can be a breeze, especially if there are cold beers and BBQ at the end of it. So why not turn it into a fun event and be the envy of your neighbours with your gorgeously fuss-free hedging?
If you’re thinking of planting a hedge then I’d highly recommend watching my popular YouTube garden guide below which will show you the basics of creating the perfect hedge.
Why not check out the other guides and vlogs on my Youtube channel? You can also check out my Tweet, Facebook or Instagram for more garden guides and tips.