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How to Shape Hedges

By James Young ; Updated September 21, 2017
Dense well-shaped hedges depend on early planning.

Hedges of estate quality don't grow naturally. Plants in thickets reach out to all sides, competing for light with their neighbors. Cutting back that competitive growth causes thicket plants to branch out densely and pack more leaves into less space. The best hedges result from careful tending through the first years, repeating that same cycle of expansion and reduction many times. Shaping to geometric forms only works well when the hedge approaches its final size.

Prune the hedges to shape during the first two years of the hedge's growth. Trim young hedge bushes to only 6 to 8 inches in height after planting. Before buds open the following spring, remove half the new growth from the year before. Prune half the annual growth again early in the second spring. Cut back sides as well as tops.

Shape hedges with more detail in the third year. Allow 6 to 8 inches of new growth before trimming back lightly. On average remove half the new growth in one trimming. Allow the hedge to fill in and trim back again. Total expansion of the hedge in one season shouldn't exceed 8 inches.

Prune any damaged or dead limbs in late winter, and remove any pockets of debris. Repair holes in the hedge by tying off limbs to stout stems and pulling them over to fill gaps. Use cotton cord which rots after one or two seasons. Tie to the plants with a loop, not a tight wrap.

Trim to a more precise shape using cotton lines as guides when hedges reach the desired final height. Drive stakes at four corners of the hedge. Tie cotton guide-lines between the post tops to mark the desired hedge dimensions. Level the lines with the sliding bubble level. Set the marker posts perfectly vertical by measuring with a plumb bob. Plumb bobs are simple pointed weights suspended from a string. Holding one up gives a perfect vertical line for sighting cuts and straightening posts.

Sight along the guide-lines to trim the hedge to a final squared shape with flat top and vertical sides. Make the first side cut lightly along the hedge bottom, allowing the upper hedge to fill in the vertical line during the growing season. Once the shape establishes well, take down guide-lines and simply cut back to the old growth.


Things You Will Need

  • Gloves
  • Goggles
  • Line level
  • Plumb bob
  • Wooden stakes
  • Cotton string
  • Pruning shears
  • Hedge clippers
  • Power hedge trimmers
  • Leaf rake


  • Guide-lines help establish a symmetrical form even if the final shape isn't rectangular.
  • Use sharp tools. Dull tools, whether powered or manual, make ragged cuts and leave debris connected to the hedge by fibers.
  • Cut young hedges wider at the base than at the top. Lower branches fill out more slowly and if cut back too far could die off.
  • Avoid buying a plumb bob at a hardware store by tying a heavy fishing sinker to a string.
  • Rake clippings out of the hedge with a lawn rake or a gloved hand. Old clippings hanging in the bushes could shade out new growth.


  • Wear goggles or safety glasses when trimming hedges. The ends of old twigs fire off like missiles when clipped. Don't depend on blinking for protection.

About the Author


James Young began writing in 1969 as a military journalist combat correspondent in Vietnam. Young's articles have been published in "Tai Chi Magazine," "Seattle Post-Intelligencer," Sonar 4 ezine, "Stars & Stripes" and "Fine Woodworking." He has worked as a foundryman, woodturner, electronics technician, herb farmer and woodcarver. Young graduated from North Seattle Community College with an associate degree in applied science and electronic technology.