Pruning hedges

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Hedges may be formal or informal. A formal hedge is one that is pruned with hedge shears to keep it to the desired form and size, while an informal hedge is allowed to grow more or less naturally with just enough pruning with one-hand shears or lopping shears to keep it within bounds.

One important thing to remember with hedge plants is to prevent them from growing up too fast. This can be accomplished by cutting them back moderately as soon as they are planted and by nipping the tips of the shoots whenever they attain the length of 8 to 10 inches. This is heartbreaking to the owner of the hedge, but he will be repaid in later years by having a hedge furnished from top to bottom, whereas, if left unpruned, the growth toward the bottom of the hedge would be sparse and spotty. Also, the trimming should be done in such a way that the hedge is narrower at the top than at the bottom.

It may sometimes be necessary to cut a hedge almost to the ground if it has grown too large for the position it occupies. But do not do this unless there is a reasonable certainty that it is a species that is amenable to such cutting back. The following are known to break from old wood even when they are cut back severely: Boxwood, Euonymus, Ilex aquifolium, opaca, and, among the deciduous ones, Acanthopanax, Crataegus, and the ubiquitous California Privet.

Among the plants which make satisfactory hedges are the following:


Broad-leaf hedges

  • Berberis julianae, B. verruculosa. These need very little pruning. Merely cut back any shoots that spoil their symmetry. Set them about two feet apart.
  • Euonymus fortunei vegetus and the new Corliss varieties which have been distinguished by the prefix "Emerald" are excellent hedge material. Noteworthy varieties are Emerald Charm and Emerald Leader. Emerald Charm should be set from 1 to 2 feet apart. Emerald Leader can be set 2 to 3 feet apart. Shorten new shoots to make the hedge more compact.
  • Chamaecyparis obtusa compacta. Plant 2 to 3 feet apart. Not much pruning is necessary. Merely cut off shoots which are exceeding the bounds.
  • Poncirus (Citrus) trifoliata. This is really a deciduous species, but its stems are green throughout the year and thus it is, in effect, an evergreen. It is not reliably hardy in regions that have -winters more rugged than Long Island, New York. It makes an impenetrable spiny hedge, especially if given a light over-all shearing during July. Space 3 or 4 feet apart.
    Ilex crenata. Shear to shorten the new growth in July. If the shoots have been injured by winter they should be cut off in the spring. Use crenata for a large hedge of 8 feet or more. If a 2- to 3-foot hedge is desired use one of the dwarf varieties, helleri, convexa, or globosa.
  • Ilex opaca (American Holly), I. aquifolium (English Holly), I. cornuta (Chinese Holly) and its variety I. c. burfordi excel as hedges in regions where they are hardy. Set them from 2 to 4 feet apart. They may be expected to reach a height of 10 or more feet if required or they may be kept to 3 to 5 feet, shearing them twice, once in the spring when new growth is starting and again in July to shorten new shoots.
  • Ilex glabra (Inkberry) has the merit of being perfectly hardy. The fly in the ointment is its tendency toward legginess. But this can be controlled by pruning when young.
  • Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon) and I. cassine (Dahoon) are suitable for planting in the mild winter climates of Virginia and southward. Space them 2 to 3 feet apart.

Narrow-leaf hedges

  • Abies species (Fir), Picea species (Spruce). These two may be spaced 2 to 3 feet apart according to the size of the plants. They should be pruned by trimming the young shoots, usually in July when they have attained their full growth.
  • Pinus strobus (White Pine) is good for use when a tall-growing (up to 10 feet or more) hedge is required. Pinus mugo (Swiss Mountain Pine) is excellent for a low-growing hedge. Pinus sylvestris (Scots Pine) is a good choice when the soil is poor and sandy. All of these pines can be pruned by shortening the "candles" in the spring; also by cutting them back to a first whorl or, when the objective is to reduce the size, to the second whorl.
  • Taxus (Yew) is probably the most satisfactory of all evergreen hedges. It seems to be indifferent to soil conditions, is easily transplanted, will grow in the shade, and breaks well from old wood. All Yews should be pruned by shearing in July and again in the spring before growth starts.
  • Taxus baccata (English Yew) is a species with many garden forms. Except for the variety repandens, which seems to be as hardy as the Japanese Yew, it is not reliable in climates more severe than that of Long Island, New York.
  • Taxus cuspidata ( Japanese Yew) is the one that is most commonly used for hedgemaking.
  • Taxus media—a hybrid between T. cuspidata and T. baccataincludes two varieties, T. hatfieldi and T. hicksi, which because of their columnar growth habit are particularly valuable where a tall, narrow hedge is required.
  • Thuja occidentalis (American Arborvitae) is excellent as an evergreen hedge for planting in an exposed location. It may be sheared in spring when growth is about to begin and again, if necessary, during midsummer.
  • Thuja orientalis (Oriental Arborvitae) because of its habit of growth is not so successful as the native species. With many shoots starting from the base it is likely to be injured by snow. When it is grown as a specimen it is advisable to tie the branches together by fastening a piece of tape to a strong branch near the ground line, winding it around and around in a spiral, and fastening the end to a strong branch in the upper part of the plant. This should be done in late fall or early winter. If grown as a hedge it can be protected by putting stakes alongside of the hedge and connecting them with strong twine.
  • Tsuga canadensis (Hemlock) is probably the most satisfactory of all evergreen hedges when the cost of planting is considered. Plants may be set 2 to 3 feet apart in the spring and given an over-all shearing at once. Subsequent pruning is carried out during June or July to shorten the new growth.


  • Acanthopanax pentaphyllus (Five-leaved Aralia) is valuable chiefly because it will grow almost anywhere in full shade or in sun. When used as a hedge it should be clipped when the new growth has been made in the spring. The flowers are inconspicuous and can be ignored.
  • Berberis thunbergi ( Japanese Barberry) and its varieties B. t. minor, B. t. compacta, and B. t. pluriflora (Columnberry) are, for the most part, excellent for informal hedges, especially when a thorny, impervious barrier is required. Very little pruning is necessary, except that the variety minor needs to be sheared at least once a year when it is used as an edging. The straight species B. thunbergi is capable of growing to 8 feet tall and as much or more in diameter, so if you are limited for space you should concentrate on variety compacta or variety pluriflora.
  • Berberis mentorensis (Mentor Barberry), a hybrid between B. thunbergi and B. julianae, is magnificent in the fall, when its foliage changes to a very strong red (Nickerson Colorfan). It is a good choice where an informal hedge 6 feet high is required. Although it is said to be evergreen in mild climates, here in the mid-Hudson Valley it is deciduous. Prune by cutting back wayward shoots.
  • Chaenomeles lagenaria ( Japanese Quince) and varieties. The one known as C. 1. Spitfire is an upright-grower suitable where a narrow hedge is required. When it is used for formal accent it is advisable to tie it to a stake. Pruning consists of shortening the shoots during the growing season. This can be done by thumb and finger or, if a hedge is concerned, by using hedge shears. Set the plants about 2 or 3 feet apart.
  • Euonymus alatus and E. a. compactus. Neither of these requires any pruning except when it becomes necessary to keep their height down. To do this it is advisable to cut them back in July and if necessary, they can be cut back again into the old wood the following spring. They are subject to attack by a black aphid which causes the topmost leaves to curl. Because of the difficulty of reaching them by contact spray, the most satisfactory way of fighting this pest is to cut off the affected tips as soon as they are visible. The variety compactus is better fitted for a small hedge than alatus.
  • Rosa rugosa (Ramanas Rose), R. hugonis (Father Hugo's Rose), and R. multiflora ( Japanese Rose) are perhaps the most popular species used in hedgemaking. They are best used in an informal way by limiting the pruning to cutting out, annually, a few of the older stems during the late winter. Sometimes it becomes desirable to prune drastically by cutting the entire bush almost to the ground line. Rosa multiflora is not a good plant for a hedge where space is limited, because it grows much too large.
  • Vaccinium corymbosum (High-bush Blueberry). If soil conditions are right—moist and acid—a Blueberry hedge can double in brass in being useful as well as ornamental. See under "Fruits" for pruning methods. At least two varieties should be used to insure cross-pollination.
  • Other plants which can be used for hedges include Lonicera fragrantissima (Bush Honeysuckle), L. morrowi (Morrow Honeysuckle), L. tatarica (Tartarian Honeysuckle), Malus atrosanguinea (Carmine Crabapple), M. floribunda (Showy Crabapple), M. ioensis (Prairie Crabapple), many other Crabapples, and Crataegus (Hawthorn or Thornapple). For the first year or so after they are planted the side shoots should be checked by heading them back. Once this has been done, an over-all shearing when the new growth is almost finished, usually in June or July, is sufficient.