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The scourge of the hedge trimmer

Before winter winds take their toll: gardening expert Malcolm Griffiths says hedge trimmers, the tool of the masses for UK garden maintenance companies, can cause much destruction (Photograph supplied)

While wandering about the country lanes and by-ways on vacation in the UK, I couldn’t help but observe the many gardens and landscapes.

Especially in the southeast of England drought had been a major problem and, as in Bermuda during dry periods, the lawns of the high-end properties I saw were a straw colour.

Added to that, poor selection had caused over-planting with the result that plants lost their “natural” growth characteristics. Just as bad was the destruction caused by hedge trimmers, the tool of the masses for garden maintenance companies.

Trimmers have a rigid, straight blade (anything from a simple 18 inches to a telescopic 15 ft) with an adjustable head for cutting at an angle and therein lies the problem — the blade itself is not flexible.

Whatever the species, pruning is the same: top and sides sheared to a flat surface.

More of a problem is that the cut is anywhere along the stem, which can lead to dieback to the next lower node or leaf axil.

The UK has a temperate climate with growth being more constrained than in Bermuda. However, the effect is the same: whatever the natural characteristics of a plant, a reduction in flower production, “half-cut” foliage and a bare, twiggy appearance.

As November usually signals a noticeable reduction in new growth it is perhaps a worthwhile exercise to consider a final pruning of heavy growth before winter winds take their toll.

Bermuda gardens, especially those with some protection from wind and salt spray, can still look attractive during the “off growing” season.

Pruning should be undertaken with care to ensure a good branch system for future growth.

Individual plants should be viewed as such and pruned according to their “natural” shape to encourage new wood and flowering.

On lighter material prune with secateurs and cut at an axil of leaf bud, with the cut slanting away from the proposed bud.

The aim is to have water run off the surface rather than into the bud growth, which could cause rot.

On slightly thicker material use loppers or a small pruning saw; for larger material use a hand-pruning saw or a small chain saw.

Whichever method is used always ensure a smooth cut as ragged edges create a larger open surface area.

Where there is a ragged cut, use a pruning knife or similar to pare the cut area close to the main cut.

Hibiscus, when a stand-alone plant, should have the central branch system opened up to allow light, and thus new growth, and reduce the impact of wind damage.

By pruning in a manner where branches are of varying heights, new growth will create a cover lower down the branches and give a more solid leafy appearance.

When pruning plants with a more upright habit such as Brunfelsia americana (Lady of the Night), pruning should be of a similar approach; removing heavier wood in a tiered appearance.

Small trees with a heavy growth, along with mature trees, should be given the attention of a professional tree surgeon to ensure good future growth and shape are maintained.

Also with large trees, inspection of the upper regions can be assessed for damage or potential areas of rot.

Hedges are often affected by too-close planting, thereby requiring labour to control pest and disease problems.

And, whether they are evergreen or ornamental, they are invariably pruned on the two sides and given a topping, which does nothing to encourage “inside growth”.

Thinning out at this time will encourage new growth.

This gives the opportunity of developing a new growth structure with further pruning in the early spring, and gives a more “fluffy” appearance to the hedge than a straightedge effect full of gaps.

The important points to remember when planting a hedge are function, desired height and on-centre placement.

In short, it’s best to remember that pruning dictates the shape of things to come.