The hedge cutting season is upon us. At this time of year you can swing your blades into the largest, most unruly hedge in the neighbourhood, without too much fear of disturbing nesting birds. The only problem is how to fit all that extra work into a busy gardening schedule. And with all the rain we’ve had recently, it’s not as if the grass has slowed down.
Hedge of variegated privet (Ligustrum) undergoing trimming. I find laying down plastic sheets makes clearing up easier.
In the past few weeks I’ve cut quite a few hedges. Some are more satisfying to trim than others. The laurels – common and Portuguese – tend not to look so good after cutting, as the edges of the cut leaves turn brown. They look better once they’ve grown out a bit. You can at least cut into the older wood to renovate a hedge that’s outgrown its allotted space, or grown into an undesirable shape. They may look bare for a while, but they will throw out new shoots, and look better for it. Usually. Though you can’t always be sure, particularly as there are some nasty diseases affecting laurel at the moment. Cut back beyond the layer of green growth on the outside of most conifer hedges, and they won’t grow back. One small slip with the hedge trimmer, and you’re left with a hole that can only be covered by the plant world equivalent of a comb over! An obvious exception is yew (Taxus baccata) a British native that makes a wonderful hedge that can be clipped to any shape and will generally come back, even when cut to within an inch of its life (though it can take a while!) Which is why it appears in so many of the great gardens.
So far this year I’ve trimmed hedges of both common and Portuguese laurel, hornbeam, privet, and various unspecified conifers. Oh, and a fair amount of honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida), which seems to be the most common hedging plant in my locality, and which generally needs a minimum of two cuts a year, but would be better with four or five. My favourites are beech (Fagus sylvatica), which makes a magnificent hedge, and the faster growing but similar hornbeam (Carpinus betulus). Both are deciduous, but when they’re kept small (for instance, when trimmed as a hedge), both will keep a lot of their dried leaves over the winter, providing more screening than most deciduous hedges. Bay isn’t an especially exciting plant, and doesn’t give a great finish when trimmed (as for laurel, the cut edges of the large glossy leaves go brown), but it does reward you with one of the most beautiful fragrances the plant world has to offer, released when the leaves are cut or crushed. In a perfect example of the confusion that can be caused by plant names, bay is actually laurel (Laurus nobilis), while the plants we refer to as laurel are actually Prunus species – common, or cherry laurel is Prunus laurocerasus, while Portuguese laurel is Prunus lusitanica.
Ideally the sides of a hedge should be sloping, with the top narrower so that more light reaches the bottom, making it less likely to die off and leave you with a hedge on stilts. This also makes the hedge more resilient against wind, rain and snow. Plants don’t grow that way naturally though, so you need to keep shaping them from early on. All well and good, until you inherit a hedge that hasn’t been cut that way. Most of the conifer hedges I come across bulge out as they grow up, and because you can’t cut back into the old wood, there’s nothing much you can do about it, other than making sure you don’t let it get any worse.
I think I’ve broken the back of my hedge trimming work this year, but it isn’t finished yet – there are a still a few more to be done.