5 common mistakes to avoid when maintaining shrub borders

Leggy, woody, scraggly, spindly, yellowish, unkempt, and unsightly. No, its not roll call for the cast of some dozing-princess fairy story. If youre like most people, its the perfect description for that sad-looking hedge bordering your yard. Rows of thickly planted shrubs can be a handsome way to define borders and boundary lines, keep children and pets in (or out), and give birds shelter and even food. But like all shrubs, hedges need regular watering, feeding, and pruning to look their best. Though folks may forget to give roots a good drink in hot weather or to fertilize in early spring with a good 10-10-10 formula, the last area is where most of us really lose it. A lot of people are intimidated by pruning, but its a science anyone can master, says This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook. You just have to learn a few basics.

Here are some expert fixes for common mess-ups when it comes to hedge plantings.

Mistake 1: Shearing hedges without hand-pruning them

Using shearswhether hand-held pruners with long scissorlike blades or a power trimmerto take off branch tips keeps hedges neat and tidy, and also stimulates bud production near the plants edges. But as buds multiply, a shrub can get so thick that sunlight cant penetrate it, preventing interior growth. The result: a hedge that gets larger each year and looks lifeless inside. Proper pruning allows some sunlight to get in and enables you to cut back shrubs so they dont get too big.

So at each shearing, be sure to use bypass hand pruners to create some spaces in the hedge for light and air. Every few feet, reach inside and clip a branch or two at a 45-degree angle, just above a nub or leaflet thats growing in a direction you want to encourage.

If a hedge is old and seriously overgrown, youll need to do some rejuvenation pruning using the three-year rule. Remove up to one-third of the thickest stems down at the base of the plant, stimulating new growth; repeat the next year, and the year after. This will leave you with a healthier shrub thats reduced in size.

Ideally, hedges should be pruned in late winter, when plants are dormant and havent produced budsparticularly if youre cutting back drastically. You dont want them to break bud before you prune because you want the plants energy to go toward producing new growth where you want it, says Roger. If you take off a plants buds, youre cutting off spent energy, and it will take longer for the hedge to fill out.

Evergreens, in particular, require pruning early in the season; because theyre generally slower-growing, theyre likely to be bare (where interior cuts have been made), and off-color at the tips (too yellow) as new growth starts to show, well into the summer. Faster-growing deciduous hedge plants such as privet, spirea, and viburnum are more forgiving. With flowering shrubs, the golden rule of pruning is to wait until the day after blooms turn brownthat way the plant will have time to set buds for next year, whether it blooms on the current seasons wood or the nexts.

Hand-pruning the tips of a fastigiate white pine will help rein in its overall size.

Left alone, most hedges will start to widen at the top, where they receive the most sunlight. This results in a V shape that shades out lower branches so they produce less and less foliage. You want to turn that V upside down, says Roger. A sheared hedge should always be wider at the bottom and narrower at the top, whether that top is flat, pointed, or rounded. When shearing, start at the bottom and work up toward the top. For absolute precision cutting, you can also run a string line between stakes to ensure an even line along the top, but Roger prefers to rely on his eye for a more natural look.

Remember that once you buzz-cut the top of a plant, it is more prone to snow damage (broken branches) because it wont shed snow as readily. Tall hedges benefit from being tied up for winterjust be sure to use rope or chain lock (plastic tree-guying material) rather than hose-covered wire, which can girdle the trunks if left on too long.

Mistake 4: Trying to maintain shrubs that are too tall or too wide for their space

If youre starting from scratch, choose plants that lend themselves to making a hedge, meaning they naturally grow upright and tightthe words columnar or fastigiate in the name indicate that kind of growing habit. For formal hedges, those shrubs will also need to tolerate shearing and frequent pruning, like yew, privet, and boxwood. Generally, a hedge needs a minimum of 3 feet in width. When it comes to height, keeping your hedge at about eye level will make maintenance easier; otherwise, be prepared to climb a ladder to get at the upper reaches.

The best course is to figure out how high and wide you want your hedge to be before you plant. Research the habit of any plant you want to hedge, says Roger, then choose a variety that wont overgrow your space. Otherwise youll be fighting an uphill battle trying to cut the hedge down to size.

Good choices for larger, more naturally shaped evergreen hedges that require minimal pruning include western arborvitae, eastern red cedar, juniper, cypress, hemlock, fastigiate white pine, and some varieties of holly. Where four-season foliage isnt needed, you might consider informal hedges of flowering shrubs, such as forsythia, lilac, hydrangea, rose of sharon, crape myrtle, or rugo­sa roses.

Mistake 5: Growing a hedge when you really need a screen planting

Dont expect a hedge to provide a lot of privacy or to block an unwanted view. Hedgees are generally maintained at 6 to 8 feet high; privacy plantings can rise 30 feet. In general, screen plantings are much wider, too, made up of a mix of staggered evergreen and deciduous trees, shrubs, and perennials for a natural look. Let a hedge be a hedgean attractive shrub border that encloses your yard and unifies the landscape, says Roger. If privacys what youre after, start looking at big trees.

In this how-to video, This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook prunes a sick hedge back to good health

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