Have you noticed that local footpaths have become a bit of an obstacle course over the last few weeks? The growing season is in full swing and hedges are attempting to spread their branches, catching at our clothes or forcing us into the lawn or border. Now is the perfect time to give them a cut and to make the job a little bit less daunting, I've put together a few tips.
Firstly, the Law
It is not illegal to cut garden hedges in Summer. The RSPB has put together an easy to understand summary.
So provided you have undertaken a thorough check of the hedge and can see no sign of nesting birds, you are good to go.
Boundary hedges between properties are the responsibility of both neighbours to maintain. If a hedge has been planted on your neighbour's side of the property line, you are entitled to trim back any branches or roots that have encroached - but only back to the boundary.
Hedge height has been the cause of many neighbour disputes. Under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2005, Part 8 hedges over 2m (6¾ft ) are considered to be a form of anti-social behaviour, affecting our enjoyment of home and garden by obstructing light, obscuring a view or by being overbearing. Your local council can help in requesting a neighbour to reduce their hedge.
Checking your tools is really important; nothing looks worse than a half cut hedge. But you can guarantee if it's going to break, it will be when you're halfway through. Check that the cables for power trimmers are intact and long enough. Do you have enough petrol? And more importantly, do you have tea and cake to reward yourself when it's done.
But on a serious note, whether your planning to use power or hand tools, it's essential to spray the blade with a lubricant before (and after) cutting. This helps to prevent the build-up of sap and keeps the blades moving freely for a cleaner cut. I tend to use WD40, but there are lots of different brands out there, and they're easy to find online or in hardware shops.
You can also use a stiff wire brush to knock off any debris from previous use which might not have been cleaned away. I know I've been guilty of packing my tools away in a rush for the school gate and skipped the cleaning.
If you're planning to use hand shears, run a sharpening block over the blades as well. The cleaner the cut, the quicker a plant can heal, reducing the risk of disease getting in.
Remember your PPSE (Personal Protective Safety Gear). Sturdy boots, gloves and eye protectors are essential when using power tools. The eye patch I had to wear as a teenager while recovering from a flying piece of twig was mortifying and thankfully, not more severe.
Ladders. Make sure they are fit for purpose and lock into a stable position, especially if you're working alone. I use a tripod ladder with individually adjustable legs that can cope with slopes. They should be available to hire locally and, if you have a high hedge, makes trimming so much easier.
If possible cut on a dry but cloudy day. When it's wet, leaves are more likely to be hunched over and will be either not be cut properly or get torn by sliding blades, giving the hedge a ragged look once it dries out. Using electric tools in the rain is also not recommended as water can seep into connections, causing short circuits. There is also a danger that the wet ground can be unstable underfoot.
Cutting on bright sunny days can place the hedge under additional stress. Each cut leaf will continue to transpire moisture before it heals over and young, tender leaves can be scorched by the sun when suddenly exposed. These can develop brown edges or shrivel up completely.
Sometimes nature isn't on our side, and the conditions aren't ideal. If possible, cut in the cool conditions of early morning or evening and provide shade protection (try green netting) for a day or two while they heal.
To get that perfect straight line, use guidelines. The easiest method is to use canes and string, but it's always worth double checking with a spirit level to make sure.
Cut the top first, clipping through the soft new growth and making sure not to cut back into older wood too much. Use a leaf rake to help collect up all of the loose clippings. Collecting is really important as the cut leaves can harbour diseases and in particular, the dreaded blight.
Cut the sides next. If possible, try to create a gentle slope, making the base wider than the top. This allows light to get to the base leaves, keeping it thick and preventing it from getting top-heavy. If you're using power tools, start from the base and sweep the blade upwards as this gives a cleaner cut.
Leave the ends to last and take your time, as it's more likely you'll be walking past these regularly and will notice any imperfections.
Tip Collecting up clipped leaves can take as almost as long as the cutting. Place a sheet below where you're working to catch them all, especially in gravely areas.
I've written this with a formal hedge in mind, but the rules are also applicable to informal hedges as well. If you haven't already cut back winter or spring flowering hedges, now is a perfect time, as it will give them sufficient time to produce next years flowering stems.
Once the cuttings have been collected up and tools have been cleaned and put away, it's definitely time for that tea and cake. Tomorrow's shoulder and arm ache will be worth it.