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Home & garden.

Updated: 30 Mar 2022

How to cut a hedge with a trimmer

Keep your hedges looking their best with our guide to cutting a hedge. Our advice will make sure your hedges stay looking trim and smart year after year.
Verity Mann
cutting a hedge with a hedge trimmer

Tidying up the garden? Learn how to renovate an overgrown hedge, how to get a neat finish when trimming, and the best way to cut the top of a tall hedge, using our expert tips and tricks. 

Whether the hedge you're cutting is a formal or informal one, you'll also need the right equipment for the job. 

Keep scrolling for more information on cutting techniques, renovation and hedge trimmer safety. 

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Video: how to cut a hedge

Is now the right time to trim? Find out in our guide on when to cut your hedge. 

How to cut a formal hedge

A formal hedge is one that is clipped regularly. Choose a dense, fine-leaved plant, such as privet or a conifer and make sure you trim it regularly to a squared or wedge shape with the base wider than the top. This allows maximum light to reach the base and makes it look more solid. 

  1. Try to keep the top no wider than about 60cm, so you can cut it easily from one side.
  2. For longer hedges, erect a line using bamboo canes and string that doesn't stretch when pulled. 
  3. Push bamboo canes into the soil at either end of the hedge, and shorter canes at 45 degrees to these, pointing away from the hedge. 
  4. Tie a string line between the slanting and upright canes to stop the upright canes pulling inwards when you tighten the string along the hedge. 
  5. Tie the string above the hedge to get a straight side, and then about 1cm below the desired eventual height to cut the top.
  6. Start trimming at the bottom of each side and work upwards in smooth, continuous swathes. 
  7. Cut the top of the hedge last.
  8. Save time by spreading a plastic sheet beside the hedge to catch the clippings. 
  9. Brush or rake the clippings from the top of the hedge. If you leave them on the hedge, the damp, airless conditions they create could allow fungal diseases to get a hold.

Instead of carrying the clippings to the bin or compost heap, use a wheelbarrow. Consult our guide on how to buy the best wheelbarrow.

How to cut an informal hedge

Man trimming a long hedge

Choose a large-leaved deciduous plant, such as forsythia, escallonia or berberis, which have bright flowers and berries, too. Native plants, such as hawthorn, blackthorn or field maple, are great for wildlife, while dog rose and sweet briar rose have attractive flowers and hips. 

  1. For a regular shape, cut back informal hedges after flowering. 
  2. If you prefer a more relaxed-looking hedge with berries and hips, cut back hard every few years. 
  3. You may prefer to cut these hedges with secateurs and loppers, selectively removing older branches for a more natural look.
How to cut an informal hedge

We round-up the best hedge trimmers for small and large hedges.

How to cut the top of a hedge

If you have a lot of tall hedges to cut, invest in a special hedge-cutting platform with a wide base suitable for non-level ground. Ideally, it should be high enough that you can cut the top of the hedge at waist height. These are available from suppliers such as Henchman and Hedgemaster. 

Alternatively, you could look for a long-reach hedge trimmer with telescopic handles that extend by an additional 20-30cm, or have a long fixed shaft. You can angle the blade at right angles to cut the top of a hedge (up to about 3 metres high).

Never lean a ladder against a hedge to cut the top. If you're using an ordinary step ladder, get someone to hold it steady for you.

How to renovate a hedge

  1. Decide on the height or width you want, and use canes and string to mark this out before you start to cut. 
  2. You can cut back up to 30cm further than this, depending on the overall size of the hedge, to allow for new growth. 
  3. To retain a physical barrier, and to avoid shocking the plant, cut back one side of the hedge one year and the other side the next, especially on large hedges.
  4. Use loppers or a pruning saw on older branches that are more than 1cm in diameter. 
  5. Once you've cut it back to the required size, trim regularly with a hedge trimmer.

All conifer hedges except yew should not be cut back beyond the green growth, as they won't regenerate. If your conifer hedge has grown too large, it may be time to replace it.

Can I use a hedge trimmer to cut branches? 

How to renovate a hedge

You will often see claims that hedge trimmers can cut stems up to 33mm, but in practice we would not recommend using a hedge trimmer to cut such thick branches. If your hedge has branches larger than around 1cm, you will achieve a neater finish with loppers.

A hedge trimmer with a teeth width of around 20mm will be fine for twiggy hedges. 

See the best hedge trimmer brands to buy this year.

What about birds nesting in my hedge?

Birds nest in a hedge

It's illegal under Section 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 to knowingly damage an active bird's nest. If disturbed, birds may abandon their eggs.

If you have to trim hedges during the main nesting season – usually from March to the end of August – check for nesting birds first. Any nest site should be obvious from the frequent comings and goings, so keep an eye out for a few days before you plan to cut the hedge. 

Delay trimming until you're sure the nestlings have flown. If in doubt, wait until the autumn.

Alternatives to using a hedge trimmer

  • For boundary hedges a powered hedge trimmer is the best choice. 
  • For a smaller hedge, the environmentally friendly, low-tech option is a decent pair of hedging shears.
  • For a topiary, you can use ordinary garden shears, but topiary shears give a great finish. These can be used one-handed.
  • Large-leaved plants, such as laurels, can be difficult to trim cleanly with a hedge trimmer. Use a pair of shears to tidy up leaves left ragged by the trimmer.

Go to our hedge trimmer reviews to find one which suits you and your garden.