Garden Advice

When and how to prune hedges in the UK

What is a perfectly designed and maintained British garden without a lush and nicely trimmed hedge?

Whether you have a small urban garden in London or one on the large side in the countryside, a front garden privacy or boundary hedge is probably a desired addition to your green space. Well, hedges need to be pruned at certain times, depending on their type and age. And this post will discuss exactly that, how to cut back your hedge and when. We’ll also look into the different types of plants that can be grown into a hedgerow, as well as talk about the different types of pruning techniques.

So, if you wonder about:

  • What time of the year you should cut your hedge;
  • What the most popular formal and informal hedges are;
  • When you should not cut hedges by law;
  • How to trim your hedge in relation to its age and type;

Then, keep on reading! We’ve got all the answers right here!

Popular types of hedges in the UK

You’re probably aware that there are two main types of hedge plants – formal and informal. Formal hedge varieties are generally evergreens with some exceptions. They are commonly not suitable for growing them into informal hedgerows, although there are some types of plants that can be grown as either formal or informal hedges. Be it a conifer or deciduous species, a formal hedge plant requires more frequent maintenance than an informal one, such as a deciduous flowering type of shrub.

Informal hedge varieties, on the other hand, can be lightly trimmed, usually once a year. Some of them can thrive without the need of pruning them at all. They are deciduous plants that drop their leaves in the autumn and more often than not, produce flowers.

Formal hedges
Let’s list some of the popular formal hedge plants that Brits go for. From the deciduous evergreens, some favourite ones are Boxwood, Privet, Holly, Laurel, Hornbeam, Spindle, Beech, Holm Oak and more. Most formal deciduous hedge plants are slow-growing and need to be trained and shaped when young to form them into hedgerows. Conifer varieties, on the other hand, grow faster, so shaping them properly is crucial from the start. You’ll most likely have to trim them at least twice a year. Popular conifers that would make a spectacular formal hedge are Yew, Taxus, Leylandii, Western Red Cedar, Cypress, etc.

Informal hedges
Informal hedge plants, as we’ve said, are usually deciduous woody flowering species. These are basically any shrubs that can be grown into a hedgerow. Often, folks mix several types of plants to form a natural-looking hedge wall. Pruning them lightly is what you need, as they don’t have to look neat and tightly clipped. The list of informal hedge varieties is rather long, but some of the popular ones are Hawthorn, Lilac, Dog Rose, Butterfly Bush, Blackthorn and so on. What type of care they would need will depend on the exact type of species you choose to grow.

Types of hedge pruning methods

There are two main types of hedge trimming methods that are used, based on the age of the plants – formative and maintenance hedge pruning. Formative trimming is done in the first two years of planting your hedgerow, and sometimes, this can go into the third year, depending on the type of plant species. The purpose of formative pruning is to train the hedge to grow in the desired shape, as well as to stimulate its growth. In contrast, maintenance hedge pruning keeps the shrubbery into shape. By clipping and slightly cutting back stray young shoots or overgrown branches, you’ll ensure that your hedgerow doesn’t look messy and unkempt.

When to cut hedges back

The best time to cut back hedges in the UK will depend, again, on whether you’ll be applying a formative pruning technique or your hedge just needs some maintenance trimming.

Formative pruning is best done in the winter or early spring, whereas cutting back lightly your hedge to maintain its shape (maintenance hedge trimming) should be performed in the warm weather months during the summer.

In addition, what month you should best cut back your particular hedge plants will depend on whether they’re a flowering type. The general rule of thumb is that you have to trim your hedge after its flowering period. This generally applies to informal hedge varieties, which are trimmed and maintained like normal shrubs. However, with some flowering evergreens (that can be both grown as formal and informal hedges, like Escallonia), you can trim them before they flower so that you have a formal-looking, flowerless hedge. That’s also when you need to prune your dogwood, if you have at your lawn.

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When should you not cut hedges in the UK?

Section 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 stipulates that you should not prune your hedge, as part of its maintenance, during the active bird nesting season. This means that if your hedgerow is home to a few nesting birdies, then you’ll be committing an offence when cutting back the plants during this time.

So, always actively check the hedge and if you notice a nest, then you should delay trimming your hedgerow until mid to late August. Basically, do not attempt to do any pruning that can disturb wildlife, living in the shrubbery, during the summer months. You will be exempt from this rule if you’ve been granted a derogation by RPA (Rural Payment Agency), applicable in certain circumstances.

How to trim hedges the right way

How do you properly trim a hedge? Well, there isn’t a straightforward answer to this question. It all depends on what type of hedge you have – a formal deciduous evergreen or conifer green wall, or an informal row of shrubs, grown as a garden boundary or to keep your privacy. Also, we’ve pointed out earlier that formative and maintenance hedge trimming techniques have different purposes, which means that they are essentially different when it comes to applying the right cutting method.

Trimming back formal hedges

Formative pruning for formal hedge plants requires you to cut them back by one third after planting them if they are deciduous evergreens. In the second year, simply repeat the procedure. To maintain their shape after two years have passed, just trim back the top and sides
approximately every 8 weeks. Hand-shears are the best tool for the job.
If you have upright-growing types of deciduous hedge plants, cut back a good 6 inches when you plant them. Encourage growth and bushing out by clipping lightly side branches that first summer. In the second year, you can safely cut back the plant by half, but no later than March. In the autumn, just clip any leading shoots.

To prune newly planted conifer hedges, cut back any straying side shoots and don’t prune the main leading shoot. As the year progresses, during the summer, you may find that tying the leading shoot to a cane will give it extra support. Again, trim any side shoots, too. As for maintenance trimming, clip the hedge into the desired shape a few times until September or October (depending on the type of plant you have).

To achieve a neatly shaped formal hedge, use sharp manual tools and a strimmer. Always use canes and a string to guide you so that your hedgerow follows a straight line on top and on the side. Keep in mind that you should leave trimming the top last, so always start from the bottom. When finished, brush off all the clippings onto a plastic sheet that you’ve laid beforehand on the ground beside the hedgerow.

How to cut back informal hedges

With shrubs that are generally considered to grow successfully into an informal hedgerow, what formative and maintenance trimming technique you should use will depend on the type of plant you have and its flowering or fruit-producing period. The main rule is to cut back the hedge after flowering. And when it comes to plants that produce pretty berries, wait until those are gone and then clip straying shoots. Let’s note again here that pruning informal hedges (both formative and maintenance) is not that different from trimming any regular flowering shrubs. Furthermore, many types of informal flowering hedges can be classed as low maintenance, as they don’t necessarily have to look neat and tightly clipped all the time. So, you can just tidy up some new shoots once a year and resort to rejuvenation hard pruning techniques every few years.

Know your plants! For instance, if you don’t want to end up with a spring-flowering hedge minus any blooms, don’t prune it that winter. You see, the buds would have been already formed and you’ll just accidentally kill them. For summer-flowering hedge plants, the rule of thumb is that you can safely trim them in later winter. And you can expect them to produce lots of flowers.

Are you after a professional hedge trimming service with a local gardener?

We don’t blame you, knowing how time-consuming and skillful a hedge pruning job can be! Just contact Fantastic Services and we’ll send a local gardener, who can provide you with a professional hedge trimming service on a day that suits you the best. The specialists we work with use top-notch pruning tools and the right trimming techniques. They can also cut back individual shrubs and flowering bushes that you have in your garden on the same day as they trim your hedge if that’s what you need. We are available all week round, even on public holidays, so just pick the right appointment slot easily online and we’ll handle the rest!

Need help with trimming your hedge?

Then, hire a seasoned and experienced Fantastic gardener!

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  • Both formative and maintenance hedge trimming call for knowing the specific growing characteristics of the plant.
  • How and when you need to prune your hedge will depend on whether you have an informal hedge variety to take care of, or a formal deciduous evergreen or conifer species to maintain.
  • Although maintenance hedge trimming takes place in the summer months, you must avoid this job if you spot an active bird nest, hidden in the bushy plant.
  • Always remove the clippings off your hedge, otherwise, the lack of proper airflow, combined with moisture, may promote the onset of a fungal disease.

And if you are interested in how to shape or trim other types of woody plants in your front or back garden, why not check out our dedicated, helpful post on how to prune trees and shrubs the right way? You may just learn another trick or two!


Do you have any hedge trimming tips to share with our readers? Then, please tell us about them in the comments below!

Image source: shutterstock/Dmitry Naumov

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