Is now the time for a short back and sides?

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Stephen Des­mond is a free­lance land­scape con­sul­tant, spe­cial­is­ing in the con­ser­va­tion of his­toric gar­dens

MOST of the sum­mer in the gar­den is spent hold­ing the fort rather than cre­at­ing. Mow­ing, edg­ing, weed­ing, dead­head­ing, a cer­tain amount of wa­ter­ing and feed­ing: lit­tle and of­ten is a sound prescription for suc­cess. There is one job, how­ever, which rather hangs in the mind as the time ap­proaches and that’s the cut­ting of hedges. It tends to be a one­off an­nual job and is typ­i­cally a big push, call­ing on a range of re­sources. And be­cause it typ­i­cally takes place in late sum­mer, it’s warm work. We should be clear about what needs do­ing and when.

There are hedges, such as Rosa ru­gosa and Po­ten­tilla, that fall into the ap­peal­ing cat­e­gory of need­ing vir­tu­ally no cut­ting at all, other than the re­moval of the oc­ca­sional wan­der­ing shoot. These in­for­mal hedges are re­ally just lines of shrubs. There are plenty of al­ter­na­tives, al­though we sel­dom see them. A favourite of mine is Vibur­num ti­nus, which is quite con­tent to be trimmed up if it gets a bit too blowsy, but other­wise looks good all year round.

The clas­sic once-a-year jobs in­clude those two stal­warts yew and beech. I’m a big fan of both, for var­i­ous rea­sons. Yew has the un­de­served rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing slow-grow­ing. Of course, ev­ery­one wants a hedge that shoots up to the re­quired di­men­sions, then grows slowly, uni­formly and neatly there­after, but that’s not how life works. There’s al­ways a challenge.

Yew al­ways looks neat, tends to keep its skirt right down to the ground and is un­com­monly will­ing to be re­duced in size when it’s been al­lowed to grow too big. All it needs is an an­nual hair­cut in July, a dust-dry job if ever there was one, and it will look pos­i­tively geo­met­ric un­til next spring.

Once the yew is trimmed, beech comes next, in Au­gust. Peo­ple some­times won­der where these tablets of stone come from and the an­swer is from ob­ser­va­tion and ex­pe­ri­ence. Beech shoots keep grow­ing from May to July, then stop. Dur­ing that pe­riod, I think the hedge is of un­com­mon beauty, with an el­e­gant fringe of wavy shoots all over the or­derly frame, but it does seem to grate on some peo­ple’s nerves. They want to shave it all off, so they cut early, say in June, but it keeps grow­ing, so they have to do it again in, you’ve guessed, Au­gust.

If you cut at that time, the hedge will then make a small amount of new growth, Lam­mas growth, in late Au­gust, which just fills in the se­vere hair­cut with pretty new growth while re­tain­ing the hand­some out­line. It is this ve­neer that means the hedge re­tains its brown leaves through the win­ter, such a de­sir­able fea­ture of a beech hedge. The same ap­plies to horn­beam hedges.

Box I tend also to cut in late sum­mer, or at least af­ter the long­est day. We’re all a bit fret­ful about box these days, with good rea­son, and it’s so easy to trim that I’m less rig­or­ous about tim­ing. The shears glide across it like liq­uid and it pos­i­tively en­joys be­ing cut hard back, even to the ground in ex­tremis, so it can be made smooth or fluffy ac­cord­ing to taste.

Many peo­ple planted conif­er­ous hedges in their youth and are now faced with lum­ber­ing, brown-patched mon­sters. The fact is that a hedge such as Thuja —which has many charms, not the least of which is that fruity scent—can only ever be lightly trimmed. Once you cut into brown growth, it will never come back. Then come, as Ni­et­zsche put it, the tears and the sober­ing-up. Re­mem­ber that conifer hedges tend to be ex­cel­lent bird’s-nest habi­tat, so early au­tumn might be the time for a del­i­cate shave.

There will al­ways be hedges that fall out­side my Col­bert-like uni­ver­sal sys­tem of rules, and they have to be dealt with on their own mer­its. Privet al­ways drives me round the bend. It’s pleas­antly chirpy and in­de­struc­tible, but it never stops grow­ing and even a min­i­mal regime in­volves three cuts a year, which, to me, means two other jobs that won’t get done.

I was amused to see on my first visit to Vil­landry, the world’s most labour-in­ten­sive gar­den, that the bound­ary hedge against the road is half a mile of privet.

There are some peo­ple in this world who just thrive on the clock­work rep­e­ti­tion of self­in­flicted work. Good for them, but you can count me out.

Hav­ing per­fect hedges needn’t be too much work if you know when and how to trim them

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