The Butcher of the Bushes

When it comes to hedges, shearing isn’t always the best technique.

Before: Annual shearing had left this hedge with leafy, twiggy “crust” and a leafless interior.

Last summer, I started working for a woman who needed a little landscaping help. Her trees needed a tune-up, the perennials needed dividing and she had a hedge that was about to close off the entrance to her front walk. The opening was getting smaller and smaller. Within weeks, it would be a solid green wall. Drastic, immediate action was required.

The hedge of dwarf Korean lilac (Syringa meyeri), had been sheared each spring with gas-powered hedge shears. A fine tool indeed — if you’re using it for yews, or some other shrub that doesn’t mind being sheared like a dog. Lilacs, however, do not respond well to this treatment. The annual shearing had created a leafy, twiggy “crust”. Just 10″ from the edge of the shrub, there were no leaves at all. And because of the springtime routine, the plant never really bloomed.

Getting this hedge back into shape wouldn’t be pretty. I told my customer it would require some tough love. “When I’m finished, you will be startled.”

After: Yikes!

I started by thinning out the older branches in the hedge, cutting them right to the ground. These 5- to 6-foot branches were almost leafless, except for the twiggy tuft at the top. Then, I trimmed branches selectively, lowering the overall height of the shrub and opening congested areas. After several hours with loppers and pruners, I was done. The result was indeed startling. The few leaves that remained did little to grace the transparent, twiggy hedge. The opening to the walkway had been restored, but the hedge looked pretty bad. I reasurred my customer that everything would be fine in a few weeks. She, in turn, reassured her husband that they hadn’t just paid someone to butcher the bushes.

As the weeks passed, I worried that the shrub would not recover. Had I been too harsh? What if the dormant buds didn’t respond to the light? But they did. Within a month, new growth was evident throughout the shrub. By the end of the season, the hedge had filled out nicely. In my customer’s eyes, I was redeemed, and the hedge was, too.

Come June, I hope to see a hedge covered with pale-pink flowers, filling the entryway with fragrance.

The renewed hedge, basking in autumn light.
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5 Responses to The Butcher of the Bushes

  1. Anonymous says:

    It takes nerves of steal to be a real gardener. I think you could have cut it harder. You should try “stooling” it next year!

  2. Chiot's Run says:

    Hm, very interesting. I'm wanting to plant a hedge, but I don't know what to plant. I'd love a yew or boxwood, but I think something that blooms would be better for the bees & beneficials.

  3. Lilacs can make a nice hedge. Planting 6 or 8 of them also lets you enjoy several different colors, styles and bloom times. The old fashioned lilac varieties get very tall (which can be good if you want a tall hedge). The dwarf lilacs are considerably shorter and more dense with foliage right to the ground (though they still get to be 5 or 6 feet — a different scale than a boxwood hedge!) Butterflies love lilacs!

  4. That was a very drastic trim job, but it will be beautiful this season. I just love the look of hedges and bushes in full bloom, but don’t like the work involved in maintaining them. When we moved into our present home we had to remove some long neglected bushes. One still remains, We call it the bush from Hell. It threatens to take over my garden every year. We just can’t get rid of it. It would have been beautiful if someone would have taken care of it.

  5. immortelle says:

    Thank-you for this discussion. As another green industry professional, I see the mistreatment of hedges every day. I Also know the anxiety of doing this kind of renovation pruning for a client. I hope you posting will help educate people on the proper way to deal with their hedges and/or help them understand what their gardener is doing for them. The instructions are also quite right for basic woody plant pruning in general.

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