Garden Maintenance: Hedging & Shearing

In early spring, as I scramble to get a jump on garden projects, there looms the question “when to shear?” At BB Barns, we shear some huge hedges. The trimmers are heavy, noisy and invariably run out of gas when I am balanced on top a tall ladder, but it’s a challenge I look forward to. This is the time to shape your garden. Whether you are creating a topiary or working on a privacy hedge, you get to imagine yourself a great sculptor, standing back asking what cut to make. Which is to ask, what kind of plant are you cutting? Some plants are damaged by shears while others can handle the hard cuts. What tools are right for the job? What affect do our early spring choices make in the landscape of our summer gardens?

The “Rule of Thumb” in Shearing

A wise extension agent once told me to follow the “rule of thumb” when deciding whether or not it is appropriate to shear. “If the leaf is bigger than your thumbnail, the plant should be selectively pruned, not sheared,” she said. This means that plants such as Boxwood, Yew and Privet are all good candidates for a tightly hedged look while others like Holly, Hornbeam, and even Euonymus should be selectively pruned. Absurd! I thought. You expect me to reach into a 10 foot prickly Holly tree and snip each individual branch? Not necessarily. Most of us shear Holly trees into impressive conical lawn art, but it’s good to know that we challenge the health of the plant when we make that same uniform cut each year. 

Selective Pruning to Encourage Plant Health

Selective pruning is the removal of unwanted wild hairs by pruning the branch back to the trunk or auxiliary branch inside the body of the plant. Shaping the plant in this way encourages plant health in two ways. By making a clean pruning cut, the plant is able to heal over the wound faster and the removal of inner branches allows for more airflow and light, preventing habitat for disease and mold. So why do we still shear our hollies? Well, most people just like the way it looks and while the holly may not live as long, what is the point of having a garden if you don’t like looking at it?

Shearing Beautiful Hedges and Topiary

If the plant you are looking at has a leaf smaller than your thumbnail, it’s time for guilt-free creativity! Amazing things have been done with Boxwood and particularly Yew in the world of yard art. From the cottage gardens of England to Pearl Fryar’s Topiary Garden in South
Carolina, gardeners have challenged the will of plants in the name of beauty and you can too! The first step is the right tools and the right timing.

Hedging & Shearing Timing

If you are planning to make some heavy-handed cuts on your plants, do it in the winter. The plant is dormant and isn’t working as hard to photosynthesize and put out new growth. I like to make hard cuts in late winter because in doing we often create bald spots on the plant. If you trim just before spring you don’t have to look at a funny plant all winter long. So, do your aggressive shaping when it’s still cold out and leave the touch­ups for June and September.

Hedging & Shearing Tools

One of my favorite garden tools is the ARS brand KR­1000 hand shears. They are light weight, stay sharp and don’t hurt my hands after hours of use. An unreasonable choice for high production trimming, but I carry them in the summer for touch ups. The big guns in our tool closet are the Stihl HS81r gas shears. They are amazingly strong, lighter than you’d think and have a rotating handle for trimming at strange angles. Really fun to use, but also fairly pricey. If you aren’t quite that invested as a hedging hobbyist, a good sharp pair of electric shears get the job done just fine and even if they don’t eat through the big branches, you can selectively prune and maybe your boxwood will even thank you for it.

Written by Jenny Luczak, Plant Purchasing & Garden Services, BB Barns Landscape.

BB Barns Landscape provides full-service landscape design, installation, and maintenance in Asheville, NC and the surrounding areas in Western NC.