The Ultimate Guide to Trimming & Pruning Bushes, Hedges & Shrubs

by Chris Lambton

If you turn your back, even for one season, Mother Nature can quickly take over your yard. To combat this problem, I regularly monitor my bushes, shrubs and hedges for any potential pruning needs. From removing damaged wood, to lightly trimming for shape, following just a few simple guidelines means you don't need to worry about making the wrong cut. Regular pruning can be easy!

The Ultimate Guide to Trimming & Pruning Bushes, Hedges & Shrubs

Bushes, Shrubs & Hedges: What's the Difference?

While a hedge is easy to identify as a row of bushes, shrubs or trees, there are very few differences between bushes and shrubs. Many horticulturalists consider the only real difference to be regional language. Bushes and shrubs are woody plants which generally remain under 15 feet in size. They usually feature more than one perennial stem and multiple branches of under 3-inches in diameter. There are always exceptions to this rule, but I consider it a good starting place for classifying your landscape plants.

What are Bushes?

While bushes and shrubs are technically the same plants, some people refer to bushes as the wilder versions of shrubs. I define bushes as shrubs that grow without maintenance and ideally require very little pruning.

Types of Bushes

  • Azaleas and Rhododendrons are probably the largest group of bushes left growing unpruned. In fact, the more you prune them, the fewer flowers they produce.
  • Rosemary grows quickly to 3 feet tall and then requires no pruning to maintain shape and size. Often listed as an herb, this woody evergreen is easy to grow and needs little water.
  • Dwarf Japanese Cedar and other compact conifers maintain a low, mounded shape without any maintenance.
  • Shrub Dogwoods are planted for their wild appearance. Often used in naturalized gardens, they give gardens four-season beauty with their brightly colored winter stems.
  • Roses often require pruning, making them an exception to this group. No one refers to "rose shrubs," – it is normal to refer to roses as bushes.

What are Shrubs?

Although there is no technical difference between bushes and shrubs, shrubs are generally trimmed bushes requiring regular pruning. They may have prominent trunks and stems due to the removal of lower foliage.

Types of Shrubs

  • Hydrangeas are a popular flowering shrub. Some types, such as mophead hydrangeas, stay healthy through the light removal of dead stems and spent blooms. Others can be cut back to the ground every winter.
  • Holly can be pruned to maintain shape and remove any erratic growth. Each variety can require different pruning techniques and timing.
  • Yew is one of the easiest evergreen shrubs to prune. Left to grow unchecked, many varieties will exceed 20 feet in height. If you want to keep your yew shrub from becoming a tree, you must prune it regularly.
  • Burning Bush is a vibrant shrub easily shaped by pruning during the winter months. This versatile shrub can be groomed to look like a small tree or squared off to create an attractive addition to a hedge.
  • Boxwoods are popular evergreen shrubs. They require frequent thinning to remain healthy and can be easily shaped to fit your landscape design.

What are Hedges?

A hedge is a line of natural or trimmed shrubs or trees planted to form a living fence. These all-natural borders can create shade, maintain privacy or simply establish boundaries. There are multiple options for creating a hedge – from low-maintenance, informal bushes to heavily pruned shrubs for a formal hedge in a traditional garden landscape.

Types of Shrub Hedges

  • Emerald Arborvitae is a flexible evergreen hedge option. It naturally grows up to 15-feet tall, but can be pruned to any height.
  • Rose of Sharon is an easy-to-grow flowering bush. This deciduous plant adds softness to your landscaping and is usually not pruned.
  • North Privet is one of the fastest growing options – up to 3 feet each year. Considered only semi-evergreen, this shrub grows thick and compact for the best looking trimmed hedges.Frequent trimming keeps it looking its best.

Glossy Abelia attracts butterflies to your garden with small trumpet-shaped flowers. You can prune to form a low hedge, but it also forms an attractive arching hedge between 3 and 6 feet tall when left untrimmed.

  • Japanese Euonymus grows quickly to 15-feet tall but can be kept short and neat through regular pruning. It is available in a wide range of foliage colors featuring variegated leaves streaked with white, gold or cream.

Trimming and Pruning Deciduous Shrubs

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Deciduous shrubs are those that lose foliage during the cold months. They require trimming and pruning to maintain a healthy shape. When trimming shrubs, I like to keep the crown open to allow light penetration. This gives you healthy leaves throughout the entire plant, not just at the ends of branches.

Knowing how to trim bushes at the right time depends on the type of plant. I prune forsythia annually – the branches double as a beautiful cutting for your spring arrangements. Slow growing shrubs, such as viburnum, only need pruning every five years or so. A good guideline is to only prune when you have a good reason, such as dead wood, overgrowth or leggy stems.

Steps to Trimming Deciduous Shrubs

Trimming deciduous shrubs involves removing dead or damaged branches and lightly shaping leggy stems to encourage growth. The tools you need for this project depends on the size of your branches. When I'm about to prune, I grab hand-held pruners, long-handled loppers, and hedge shears so that I'm prepared for all sizes of branches. I use the Fiskars® PowerGear2™ Pruner, Lopper and Hedge Shears when I know I need the job done right.

1. Begin by identifying any dead or damaged wood. Using the Fiskars® PowerGear2™ Lopper, cut at a 45-degree angle just above the branch collar. You'll find this little ridge right at the junction of the branch and main trunk. This area heals quickly and is the ideal place to cut back an entire branch for removal.

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2. Locate any branches rubbing together. These branches often introduce open wounds to the wood as they rub together. Cut at a 45- degree angle at the branch collar. This discourages growth from the same location again.

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3. Shorten branches or twigs by cutting � inch above a bud using the PowerGear2™ Pruner. You can lightly trim shrubs around the edges to help encourage thicker growth.

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Steps to Pruning Overgrown Shrubs

When pruning shrubs that haven't been maintained, I like to take the gradual, multi-year approach. This solution for how to trim shrubs and bushes takes a bit longer but results in a larger, healthier shrub in the long run. Each year, you remove 1/3 of the plant. After three to four years, you have a new, healthy shrub.

1. Identify the oldest and least productive branches for removal.

2. Cut 1/3 of the plant back to the ground or at the branch collar. I like to use my PowerGear2™ Lopper to reach into the plant easily.

3. Heavy pruning can encourage excessive growth throughout the entire plant. New growth should be maintained through regular trimming as needed.

Trimming and Pruning Evergreen Shrubs

Most evergreen shrubs require very little trimming. Both broadleaf and narrow-leaf evergreens should be purchased with their mature size in mind. Trying to keep them within certain limits can easily become a never-ending project that damages the health of the plants.

Steps to Trimming Broadleaf Evergreen Shrubs

Many flowering broadleaf evergreen shrubs benefit from a light trimming or deadheading just after flowering. I find that by simply removing spent blooms, my evergreen shrubs are fuller and bloom abundantly.

1. Grasp the branch with one hand just below the flowering section.

2. Use your fingers to snap the faded flower truss from the branch. It should easily snap off.

3. Be careful to not damage the vegetative buds or new shoots directly below the flowers.

4. If the branch does not break easily, a sharp pair of garden shears can help prevent damage.

Steps to Trimming Narrow-Leaf Evergreen Shrubs

Narrow-leaf evergreen shrubs do not perform well with frequent trimming or heavy pruning. The more you trim them, the thicker the foliage becomes on the outside edges. Eventually light cannot penetrate to the middle of the plant. You will notice your shrubs no longer have needles on the inside. This drastically reduces the life of your shrubs. The key is to keep your trimming to a minimum and follow the natural lines of the plant.

1. Begin at the top of your shrub and work your way down. The goal is to simply open up your plant to keep light and air filtering through all levels.

2. Identify long branches reaching beyond the normal shape of the shrub. Prune at a 45-degree angle within an inch of an inner lateral branch.

3. Shrubs along walkways and porches can be trimmed back, but take care to cut the branches at various lengths to mimic the natural form of the plant.

Steps to Pruning Broadleaf Evergreen Shrubs

Overgrown and multi-stem broadleaf evergreens may need a bit more than a simple trimming. Also known as rejuvenation, this drastic pruning can give your evergreen shrub a fresh start.

1. Remove a few of the oldest trunks each year for a period spanning two to four years. I like to use a pruning saw to provide a clean and even cut a few inches from the base of the crown.

2. Drastically overgrown broadleaf evergreens may require an extreme cutting back in early spring. Simply prune down to the leafless wood at varying heights between two to four feet from the ground. By varying your cutting heights, the regrowth will look natural.

3. Apply a good fertilizer in the fall to help the plant with healthy regrowth.

Trimming and Pruning Hedges

Now that you understand the basics of trimming shrubs, you may be wondering how to trim hedges. Because hedges are simply shrubs, when to trim hedges and techniques used are the same as pruning the individual plants. Although it may be tempting to get outside and clean up your hedges in early spring, keep in mind that you may be removing your spring flowers.

You may have read how to cut a hedge completely back to give it a fresh start. I rarely feel this is necessary. For one, it can take up to four years for the hedge to regrow. For hedges with a natural, rambling look, simply trim and prune each individual plant to increase light penetration and remove old wood. If you are looking for the best way to trim hedges with traditional formal shapes, the following steps will help you trim and prune to maintain a tidy look.

Steps to Trimming Hedges

1. Use your home, siding, sidewalk or other straight edge as a guide to create a straight topline to your hedge. Professionals use stakes and strings to create a perfectly straight line when cutting hedges.

2. Grab your PowerGear2™ Hedge Shears to create straight clean cuts. I like the combination of strength with a 10-inch blade – it makes this chore go by quickly and easily.

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3. Make even cuts across the surface of your hedge. Keep in mind that when trimming hedges, you can always take more off, but it is impossible to put any back on.

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4. Angle your hedge so that it is wider at the bottom.

5. Once you have exposed the true shape of your hedge, you can prune old wood, remove suckers, and remove any wayward branches.

6. Fertilize your trimmed hedges to encourage strong growth. Trimming and pruning encourages new growth. By adding fertilizer, you encourage the healthiest growth possible.

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Steps to Pruning Hedges

1. Identify older branches for removal. If your hedge is old and overgrown, plan to remove 1/3 of all stems. Space the removals out to keep the plant even. The best branches to remove are ones that are dead, damaged, diseased or rubbing against others.

2. Make cuts at a 45-degree angle using the appropriate tool for the branch size. I like to use lopping shears to reach into the bush. Individual branches can be cut back to the main trunk, leaving a 1 to 2-inch stub. If the branch splits into two, you can cut just above the split.

3. With a clean pair of pruning shears, clip off any suckers and waterspouts approximately 1/4 inch from the tree.

4. Fertilize your freshly pruned hedges to encourage new, healthy growth.

When to Prune Bushes, Shrubs & Hedges

Pruning bushes, shrubs and hedges all depends on the type of plant and its growth patterns. You can easily time the pruning of bushes with showy flowers. All you need to know is whether the plant produces flowers on old wood or new wood. Cutting bushes that flower requires the proper timing. Shrubs without blooms should be pruned to encourage foliage growth.

When to Prune Old Wood Bushes

Old wood bushes produce buds the year before they flower. For example, forsythia and other early spring bloomers flower in 2018 from the buds produced in 2017. You don't want to prune these buds before blooming. Time your bush trimming just after flowering to prune.

When to Prune New Wood Bushes

New wood bushes bloom on new growth. For example, a hydrangea blooms in 2018 on the buds produced in 2018. You usually prune new wood shrubs in the winter or early spring to encourage new growth and plenty of blooms.

When to Prune Non-Flowering Shrubs

Shrubs grown for their beautiful foliage, such as barberry and burning bush, can be pruned to maintain shape throughout most of the year, except late autumn. Shrub trimming and pruning encourages new growth, and you don't want to expose young stems and leaves to the cold of winter. If a non-flowering shrub has become wild and overgrown, the best time to cut it back is during the winter. This gives it a fresh start with plenty of new growth in the spring.

General Trimming and Pruning Tips

The following shrub and hedge trimming tips will save you time and keep your shrubs healthy:

  • I always recommend gloves and eye protection for trimming or pruning bushes, shrubs and hedges. You never know when a cutting will fly the wrong direction.
  • When removing just the ends of shoots or limbs, keep in mind that the new growth will happen in the direction the remaining bud points.
  • Remove all clippings to prevent pests and disease. You can either lay a tarp down to collect the trimmed leaves and branches, or rake after you are finished using the Fiskars® Leaf Rake and load into the Fiskars® Garden Kangaroo Bag.
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  • A good layer of mulch can help maintain moisture and prevent grass and weeds from stealing nutrients from your shrubs. Leave a few inches between the mulch and the base of each plant.
  • Trimming bushes and shrubs encourages new growth. I like to trim shrubs, especially young ones, to achieve better branching and thicker foliage.
  • You may be wondering how to trim tall hedges. It is better to choose shrubs for your intended hedge height than to try to keep hedges a certain height.
  • In areas with heavy snowfall, rounded formal hedges hold up better to the weight of the snow.
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