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Trimming hedges: the most important tips

Most hobby gardeners cut their hedges in the garden once a year around St. John's Day (June 24th). However, experts from the Saxon State Institute for Horticulture in Dresden-Pillnitz have proven in tests lasting several years: Almost all hedge plants grow more evenly and denser if they are cut to the desired height and width for the first time in mid to late February and a second, weaker one at the beginning of summer Pruning can follow.

Cutting hedges: the essentials in brief

With the exception of spring bloomers, hedge plants are cut back to the desired height and width in early spring, mid to late February. A lighter cut back follows around St. John's Day on June 24th. About a third of the new annual shoot is left standing. Cutting a trapezoidal shape with a wide base and a narrow crown has proven itself. For a straight cut you can use a cord that is stretched between two rods.

When do you cut hedges?

The first cut is made in mid to late February. The advantages of the early pruning date: The shoots are not yet fully in the juice in early spring and can therefore tolerate pruning better. In addition, the bird breeding season has not yet started, so there is no risk of destroying the newly created nests. After the early hedge cut, the plants need a certain regeneration time and often do not really thrive again until May. Until then, the hedges look very neat and well-kept.

Around Midsummer Day, a second pruning then takes place in June, leaving around a third of the new annual shoot. A stronger cut with the hedge trimmer is not recommended at this point, as this would rob the hedges too much of their substance. With the remaining new leaves, however, they can build up enough nutrient reserves to make up for the loss. The hedge is left to grow for the rest of the year and then cut back to its original height in February.

You can only cut or clear your hedges in the garden from October 1st to February 28th. However, according to the Federal Nature Conservation Act, cutting in spring and summer threatens a hefty fine. Read our article about exactly what this law means for garden owners.

Important: According to the Federal Nature Conservation Act, radical hedge trimming between March 1st and September 30th is not allowed at all. The background is the protection of native animals, such as birds. On the other hand, a gentle maintenance cut is permitted between March and September. Always check beforehand whether there are any nesting birds in the hedge.

These hedges are not cut in spring

You don't cut hedges made from spring flowers such as forsythia or blood plums in February, but wait for the flowers to bloom. An early hedge cut would unnecessarily reduce the number of flowers. A possible second cut should not be made after St. John's Day, because the trees will then no longer plant any new flower buds for the next year. As a rule, you can manage these shrubs in the garden with one topiary per year anyway.

In any case, avoid that the hedge is narrower at the bottom than at the top! If you cut it too narrow at the bottom, it will shade itself. This can easily happen as the upper branches naturally grow stronger than the lower ones. However, if the lower leaves get too little light, they will become bald over time. Species such as arborvitae (thuja) and false cypress do not sprout again in these areas and remain brown. If, on the other hand, the hedges are trapezoidal in shape when they are cut, they will not bald at the base as quickly. In addition, when cutting, the width of the hedge should be based on the natural growth of the respective plant. For example, a shrub like the cherry laurel needs more volume than a tree-like hedge plant like the hornbeam.

How can you cut hedges straight?

A simple trick helps to cut the hedge crown nicely straight: Use an auxiliary line as a guide by placing two sticks on the side of the hedge and stretching a cord at the desired height. When cutting freehand, you can avoid dents and mounds in the hedge crown by holding the hedge trimmer exactly horizontally with both arms and making slight swivel movements from your back. The more you move your arms, the more uneven the layplan usually becomes. When cutting the hedge flanks, stand with one side of your body next to the hedge so that you are looking towards the still uncut end of the hedge. You should hold the electric hedge trimmer parallel to the hedge with largely straight arms and swing it up and down from your shoulders in even movements.

How can you rejuvenate an old hedge?

Most hedges made from deciduous shrubby trees such as cherry laurel, barberry, firethorn or privet can be rejuvenated if necessary by cutting them back into the old wood. The ideal time to cut is in the case of deciduous shrubs in early spring before the leaves shoot, in the case of evergreens it is early summer, around the time of regular hedge cutting. In order for the plants to sprout safely again, however, the accompanying circumstances must be right - these include above all a light location in the garden and a good water supply. Use a saw to cut all of the main branches of the plants back to about 30 centimeters above the ground. The new shoot should be trimmed again by at least a third of its length no later than next spring so that the hedge is nice and tight again. Note that with slow-growing species such as boxwood, it can take a few years for the rejuvenated hedge to look good again.

Is your box tree damaged by frost? In this video, we will tell you how to cut it properly.
Credit: MSG / CAMERA: FABIAN PRIMSCH / EDITING: RALPH SCHANK / PRODUCTION SARAH STEHR

Rejuvenate single-stemmed hedges

Such brutal pruning measures as with hedge bushes are usually not necessary for tree-like hedge plants. Nevertheless, it happens that, for example, you take over an old garden with a hedge that has become very wide and would like to bring it back into shape. Then it's time for a taper cut. Due to their high regenerative capacity, most tree-like hedge plants such as field maple, red beech and hornbeam tolerate such regeneration well.

To protect the plants as much as possible, proceed as follows in the case of unkempt, older deciduous hedges: In early spring of the first year, use pruning shears or tree saws to cut back all the side branches on the upper side and on one flank so that only there are still stumps with slight lateral branching. In the second year it is the turn of the other flank. The advantage of this gradual rejuvenation is that the plants always have enough leaves on one side and can therefore cope better with removing the shoots.

From the so-called sleeping eyes, the branch stumps sprout again vigorously. However, some hedge plants take a long time to sprout and only show fresh green again in summer. This is not a cause for concern as the plants need time to activate their "sleeping eyes".

How do you shape coniferous hedges?

In contrast to most deciduous trees, coniferous hedges are not very easy on pruning. They will not sprout from the unpinned branches if they have been cut back too far. You should therefore always stay in the "green area" with all pruning measures for arborvitae (thuja) or false cypresses, but also for pines and spruces. A moderate cut to regulate the height is possible with all conifers: Over time, the trimmed trunks will be overgrown by the fresh shoot of the side branches and the hedge will slowly become tight again from above. However, the flanks may only be cut back as far as the needle base extends. Needle-free shoot stubs no longer sprout. The only exception is the yew: it even forms fresh green shoots directly from the trunk.

Cutting the hedge: closing holes and gaps

Who does not get annoyed when the external appearance of the hedge in the garden is clouded by gaps? There are various tips on how to repair such blemishes: Smaller holes in deciduous hedges such as hornbeam, boxwood and privet or conifer hedges such as thuja and false cypress close relatively quickly if the area is sufficiently exposed. If in doubt, remove the branches of neighboring trees if they cast too much shade on the hedge.

Larger gaps will disappear faster if you lead the adjacent shoots along a bamboo stick horizontally or diagonally over the open area. If you also trim the tips of the shoots a bit, stimulate the branching of the hedge and the gap will soon no longer be visible.