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When should I cut my hedges?

Hedges are just the same as all other elements of garden plants and shrubs, they need to be cut once or twice a year, sometimes even more frequently than that depending on the type of hedge and the species of shrub or tree of which it is composed.

Maintenance cutting usually takes place in late spring/early summer but this can depend on any nesting birds. Any birding activity in the hedge will delay the cutting season significantly bearing in mind that the nesting season is normally March through to August for most species. It is an offence under the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act to damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird whilst the nest is being built or is actively in use. However, the hedges will not come to harm if you have to wait until August to cut them.

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Why are hedges cut?

Uncared for hedges will overgrow and thin out and become straggly and unkempt; cutting and pruning hedges promotes denser, thicker growth and keeps the hedge looking compact and smart.

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Formal hedges

Formal hedges are usually cut two or maybe even three times a year to keep them looking neat and trim. The sides are usually very slightly tapered so that the bottom is wider than the top and then light can reach the bottom of the hedge; this is called cutting the hedge to a batter.

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Hedge cutting equipment

Small hedges can be cut by hand whereas, for larger hedges, it is easier to use an electric or petrol hedge trimmer. Hedge cutters require regular maintenance to keep the blades sharp and cutting freely with plenty of lubrication; blunt blades will make a big job even more laborious and may cause powered hedge cutters to overheat.

Different types of hedges

Hedges can largely be divided into three groups:-

  1. Upright plants – deciduous examples would include hawthorn and privet and evergreen, Box and Escallonia
  2. Stocky deciduous plants – these have a tendency to be naturally bushy at the base and include beech, hornbeam, hazel and forsythia
  3. Conifers and most evergreens – including Lawson cypress, Leyland cypress or Leylandii, yew, bay, laurel, cherry and pyracantha

Tips for good hedge cutting

  • Cutting by eye can be difficult to ensure a reasonable straight line and crisp edge particularly if you only cut annually and are not very practised at it. A line of string tied to two canes can act a guideline providing the hedge is not overly tall
  • Arches can be cut in using a pre-designed plywood template
  • To ensure the top of the hedge is cut level and flat when using shears, keep the blades of the shears parallel to the line of the hedge
  • If you are using an electric or fuel-driven hedge cutter, keep the blade parallel to the hedge and use a wide sweeping motion working from the bottom of hedge upwards so that the cut leaves and branches fall away
  • If the hedge has large, evergreen leaves, use secateurs or loppers to individually cut back unsightly leaf damage once the hedge has been cut using either hand shears or a hedge cutter

Tall hedges that become a nuisance

Even with regular and attentive maintenance cutting, most hedges will increase in height and width over the years and even if they are kept tidy, can eventually overshadow a neighbour’s property or garden. Hedging is a very common cause of disputes between neighbours so much so that the term ‘ high hedges’ was actually defined in the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act.

This statute sets out the law and defines a high hedge as a hedge which is more than 2 metres tall on flat ground – there is additional interpretation and guidance for hedges on rising or falling ground. This act has been designed to clarify the situation with regard to hedging between two properties and provide a mechanism for disputes to be resolved without recourse to lawyers. A householder is entitled to reasonable enjoyment of his property and if two parties cannot agree, the local council can arbitrate in the dispute and make a decision based on all the facts and evidence. It is always worth trying to reach an amicable agreement with neighbours if at all possible as the council will charge a fee of £400 to investigate the dispute and you will have to reveal it on the Property Information form when you come to sell the house later on.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How frequently should you prune a new hedge?

New hedges require what is called formative pruning for the first year or two after they have been planted; this only applies if you are planting from scratch and does not refer to instant hedging which is already half-grown and established before it is transplanted. Formative pruning or cutting is usually carried out in winter or early spring after which maintenance cutting is normally all that is required annually. Read more about hedge trimming rates here.

Should you wear safety equipment when cutting a hedge?

Even with manual hedge cutters, you should wear sturdy gloves and eye protection in the form of safety goggles to prevent any sharp branches or twigs flying up into your face. Try not to cut above your head with any equipment as this can be very dangerous. Use stable step ladders to reach more inaccessible parts of the hedge and ask someone to hold the ladder if possible. Electric equipment should be used with a Residual Current Device or RCD sometimes also called a circuit breaker and should never be used in damp or wet conditions.

Do I have more responsibility with a boundary hedge that overhangs the road or the pavement?

In the growing season, boundary hedges can grow very quickly and may impede access along the pavement for some pedestrians and can also obscure essential road signs if the hedge directly borders a road. It is your responsibility to ensure safe access along a pavement or to keep road signs clear for motorists. Hedges tend to get bigger rather than smaller as the years progress so this problem may increase in frequency rather than decrease.

For more information on hedge law, see these articles from the RSPB and Natural England.

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