Pruning is a word that gardeners dread, usually because it means hard work. But it does not need to be if done regularly.
For most of us pruning is more often about the hedge that divides the garden from that of a neighbour or from an adjoining road, a good idea when it was planted but becoming a pain in the backside as it matures.
There is no doubt that a well-chosen hedge enhances a garden, whether by providing privacy, protection from the wind, reducing traffic noise or as a backdrop for flowering plants.
Even a low hedge, offering none of these advantages, defines the edge of a property in a pleasing but inconspicuous way, although care must be taken to ensure it is entirely on your side of the border.
Closely-clipped evergreen hedges that retain their colour and screening qualities throughout the winter, conifers in particular, are best in formal surroundings such as between a front garden and pavement.
Pruned correctly, some of the deciduous species such as beech and hornbeam that retain their autumn tinted foliage throughout the colder months can also be used as formal barriers.
Whether evergreen or deciduous, formal or informal boundary hedges in particular all need pruning if they are not to grow so tall that they plunge your garden and probably your neighbour's into permanent shade.
Hedges depending on the species are pruned at different times of the year but there are some general rules.
If the height of the hedge is to be restricted, remove the leading shoot six inches before it reaches that point. Always trim the sides so that the base is a little wider than the top, which helps to prevent snow damage. To help deciduous hedges thicken up at the base, remove the leader at an early stage and shorten side growth. And when pruning conifers never cut into old wood, because with the exception of yew new shoots seldom break freely from the older wood.
For the most formal hedge, use a mechanical hedge-trimmer, shears for privet and honeysuckle and secateurs for pruning informal hedges.
Establishing the shape of a hedge early makes pruning much easier in subsequent years.
A hornbeam is pruned to taper from the top so that light reaches its lower flanks, a yew is best cut into a classical formal A-shape tapering gently to a neat flat top while sloping sides and a rounded top give conifers a softer but nevertheless neat outline. Once the size and batter or slope have been established, the hedge simply needs trimming to keep its shape.
Most formal deciduous hedges are trimmed twice annually, in midsummer and again when dormant, and late summer and late spring for evergreens. Conifers need regular trimming to maintain a dense surface, except for yew, which needs only to be clipped once in summer.
Much better to stay on top of the pruning than let a deciduous hedge grow out of control which in the end presents two alternatives: grubbing out the whole lot, or the arduous business of renovation, a procedure spread over two years. Gardeners can be faced with the latter through no fault of their own when moving into a house with a neglected garden.
In the first year of renovation, cut one side of the deciduous hedge hard back almost to the main stem if necessary while pruning the other as usual. By the second year the renovated surface should have produced dense regrowth, so that the unrenovated surface can be cut back equally as hard.
Where deciduous hedges are very thin and patchy it may be necessary to cut back almost to the main stems to stimulate more vigorous growth. If the height of a long hedge has to be reduced, paint on a marker line with whitewash although on shorter runs a straight-edge or garden line is best.