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Shear Not! But Still Keep that Hedge in Check

December 14, 2011
House in the 1920s or 1930s

Historical Photo of Our Home - Lots of Lawn and Sheared Plants

Inherited a garden filled with prior inhabitants’  bizarre choices intact? Yeah, me too.

Our house is rapidly approaching its 1ooth birthday. Back in the day, they thought 12-18″ wide, straight-lined paths slammed within two feet of the house itself made sense. They don’t.

Rather than walk so close to the house that it feels as if the giant structure may bump into you, most homeowners with paths like this end up walking on adjacent lawns. It’s a personal space thing, I suppose. I got rid of that awful pathway years ago, replacing it with wider, meandering walkways made of permeable gravel and flagstone. Whew, much better. And, yeah, we got rid of all that lawn, too.

These brilliant designers also had a habit of building front garden retaining walls with a small, 8-12″ deep, planting beds at their foot. This creates a very difficult space to fill with the right plant. When we bought the house, our strip was filled with a toupee of lawn (h/t to my friend Cath for dubbing tiny, stupid lawns with the toupee appellation.). When we began eradicating lawn, this stuff had to go.

Hedge Encroaching on Sidewalk

Hedge Encroaching on Sidewalk Needs a Trim

First, I filled the space with cheap primula. At the time, I thought colorful polka dots looked cute. They really didn’t, but what did I know?

Then, I tried dividing and transplanting mixed perennials in the space. That was a big fat failure. And, as the wall continued to age and my gardening skills grew, I resolved to grow something to hide the ugly concrete. The problem though:  what’s evergreen, drought tolerant, dog-pee tolerant, cold tolerant, grows to 3′ tall and no wider than 1′. Answer: Not much.

First, I tried a hedge of Hebe buxifolia. I knew this lovely evergreen would tolerate the full sun and any drought. Plus, it blooms beautifully and withstands shearing. Unfortunately, every third plant would die each year (or a part of a plant would die from dog pee or weather or “just because”), and the hedge looked like plant mange had gone on the attack.

Then, knowing the plant could exceed my space parameters but also tolerate heavy pruning, I installed several inexpensive David Viburnum. With broad, evergreen leaves, this plant isn’t a good choice for shearing. Why? Slice a big leaf in half and it looks chopped up. (If you slice tiny leaves, it doesn’t show as readily.)

Fortunately, the Viburnum worked out fairly well. It took a few years to fill out the space, and then it began to overtake the adjoining sidewalk. But, with a good pruning at the right time of year, this hedge is in check. It requires very little supplemental watering in the dry season while tolerating hot, baking sun. And, it withstands winter just fine.

Pruned Hedge

Hand-Pruned Hedge Finished (Somebody needs to sweep though)

Here’s how and when we did the pruning:

  • Timing: Prune the viburnum as it is blooming or right after. You may lose out on some of the pretty blue berries, but only where you cut. We pruned ours in late May. Do not do your pruning in fall.
  • Tools for the job: Have a pair of bypass shears and folding handsaw for your plant cuts. A pair of loppers may come in handy for chopping up larger branches into the compost or yard waste container.
  • How to cut: Remove all the dead material on the plant first. Then, work like a mechanic, removing lower, longer branches first — assuming you want your “hedge” to look taller rather than wider. Make your cuts at points where branches meet other branches. Or, if your goal is to get an otherwise bare area to fill out, make cuts just above a strong, sprouting bud; cut incorrectly, you may seriously damage your plant. And, do not remove more than 1/3 of the living material from each plant.
  • How Often: How often you prune will come down to your plants’ needs. Our hedge was pruned in May 2010 and may require a small supplemental pruning by May 2012.

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