4 Signs it’s Time to Replant your Hedge – and how to make the new one last longer

Hedges are a basic garden feature. They create privacy and a sense of enclosure, providing protection for people and plants from cold winds. So we want them to look good, but often they don’t. Sometimes a careful trim will bring them back, but sometimes an older hedge is too far gone to be saved. How to tell the difference?

A hedge should last at least 30 years, and some gardens have hedges 100 years old or more. Partly it depends on the plants used – if they can be trimmed hard back they can have a longer life – but it also depends on the maintenance given, and how the hedge was developed when young.

Here are some things to look for that will tell you if time is up for your hedge, or if it can be salvaged. If you do put in a new hedge, some of these problems can be prevented, so your new hedge will ook good for longer than the old one did.

4 Signs it’s Time to Replant your Hedge

  • Dead areas – if you have a lot of dead in a hedge, it’s probably time to replace it
  • Gaps where plants have died – it is always hard to fill these gaps in mature hedges – sounds like time to replant
  • Bare at the base – once a hedge thins at the bottom, there is no recovery. Replanting time
  • Grown too wide – sooner or later paths and drives can be obstructed. For most hedge plants, that means it needs replacing

Dead areas

There is dead, and then there is dead. If you have brown areas on the face of your hedge, take a closer look and see why. Is the brown all attached to one branch, or is it scattered? Has a plant died, so that all its interlaced branches are now brown? Are there signs of insect damage, or disease? Black, brown or reddish spots on the leaves, or growths on the stems, can indicate a disease. Bagworms will attack some hedge plants, and their nests made of twigs will be visible hanging on the branches.

If a whole plant, or several, have died, then once you take it out you will have gaps, which we will talk about lower down. If it is just branches, then often you can remove these, and the surrounding live parts will grow into the spaces in a couple of years or less, depending on their size. Obviously smaller spaces fill more quickly, and you can protect against big gaps from branches dying by trimming in all directions, not just upwards, so that the branches grow out horizontally, not in long sweeps up the hedge.

Gaps where plants have died

If you have had to remove a dead plant, or perhaps you have an older hedge that has already lost plants, these can sometimes be replaced with new ones. To get back to a perfect, uniform surface you need to know what the plants are, which can be tricky, but if you plant something similar the color and texture difference might just be ‘interesting’ – it depends on what kind of person you are. Plants beginning to die out could be a sign of an old hedge, so it can often be better to replant from scratch than keep trying to fill in gaps.

There are two key things for filling gaps – use good-sized plants and dig planting holes that are as big as possible. Set the new plants inside the hedge, so that they can grow out and fill in the space. Don’t plant them on the edge, or they can never grow properly.

When you are planting a new hedge, buy a few extra plants and put them in another part of the garden. Trim them when you trim the hedge. Then if you lose a plant or two from your hedge, you can use these spare plants. They will match perfectly, be the same age, already have some density and structure, and be used to your garden. It makes sense.

Bare at the base

This is a classic problem with hedges that have been trimmed badly. There really is no simple solution on an established hedge, so if you need that coverage and privacy it is time to plant a new hedge. This problem develops when a hedge is trimmed evenly all over. The top always grows faster than the bottom, so if you trim evenly it is inevitable that the top grows wider. Then it shades the bottom and steals food reserves, weakening the growth further. Soon the lower branches are dead, and the growth of your hedge migrates to the top.

With your new hedge, don’t make the same mistake. The face of a hedge should slope slightly inwards, so that light, water and nutrients reach the lower branches. To achieve this, you need to trim more from the upper parts than from lower down. That’s all it takes, it’s simple, but often not understood by novice trimmers.

Too wide

Over time, hedges grow. It is not possible to keep them to zero growth, although we can get close to it with regular trimming. The less often you trim, the quicker they will grow wide. Suddenly you find your car brushing against the hedge along the drive, or you can’t walk down the path anymore. Beds in front of the hedge become engulfed, and neighbors complain they can’t get down the sidewalk.

It depends on the type of plant used to make your hedge, but with most evergreens, particularly conifers, like Thuja Green Giant, Leyland Cypress, or Emerald Green Arborvitae, cannot be cut back into branches with no leaves on them. That is why regular trimming – little and often – is the best. If you have a wide hedge, you can cut back as hard as you can, always leaving some green, and then repeat that once it thickens up. This way you can certainly get back a foot or so. If the problem is bigger than that, this is another signal to replant – you will be amazed how much garden space you recover!

Some plants, like most broad-leaf evergreens, and conifers like yew trees, can be cut back to bare wood and they will re-sprout. This is why we sometimes see yew hedges that are hundreds of years old. The technique to reduce the spread of plants like this is simple. Cut back one side very hard, leaving the other side alone. In a year or two the cut-back side with have re-sprouted and be lush and green. Now you can do the other side. The whole process takes 3 to 4 years, but its still quicker than replanting. Pity it doesn’t work for everything! For other plants that have outgrown their allotted space, the only solution is to plant a nice new hedge.

Ladders for Hedge Trimming – Tripod or Orchard Ladders

In last week’s blog we took a look at safe hedge trimming, an important subject for those who value their safety – and who doesn’t? In passing we mentioned ladders, and specifically tripod ladders, a professional tool that should be in every garden. Since it got only a brief mention, it seemed that ladders, so necessary for trimming tall hedges and evergreens, was a subject that needed more discussion. So here we go. . .

What’s Wrong with My Regular Ladder?

You probably already have a conventional step-ladder, and if you do use it in the garden you will probably already be aware of the limitations. Unlike a floor, gardens are often uneven or sloping, so it’s difficult to place a step-ladder on the ground without it wobbling. Perhaps you end up placing boards or bricks under the too-short leg(s), but this is an accident waiting to happen, and unstable support is the cause of many falls from ladders. If your hedge runs alongside steps, it is particularly difficult if not impossible to get a ladder on that section, so cutting is made much more difficult.

The second problem is getting at the hedge. With four legs you must place the ladder parallel to the hedge, so you are standing facing sideways, instead of face-on. This makes it more difficult, and dangerous, to reach the top and trim it thoroughly. A relatively easy job becomes frustrating or downright impossible.

If like most gardeners you have faced these difficulties, you probably thought they were just something you had to live with, unless you were willing to work with adjustable platforms, which are large, slow to erect and take down, hard to move and often impossible in confined spaces.

Three-legged Ladders Make a Lot of Sense

The answer has been around for centuries, but oddly it is largely unknown to American gardeners. In Europe, the United Kingdom and Japan the solution is well-known, but in the USA many gardeners struggle along with their step-ladders, not realizing there is a simple answer – cut off one of the legs.

No, not from your step-ladder, Homer. The third leg must be centered at the back, and it is often adjustable in length too. Three-legged ladders solve both of the main problems with using a regular step-ladder in the garden – unevenness of the ground and facing the hedge.

These ladders are called ‘tripod ladders’, or sometimes ‘orchard ladders’, because they are also very useful for fruit-picking and general tree pruning, as well as trimming topiary and clipping any kind of evergreen or tall bush. Working around the garden is so much easier with one, and everyone is amazed by their versatility and usefulness, compared to struggling with a conventional step-ladder.

With just three legs, as long as the front two are on a level surface, the third one can be anywhere. The third leg can be leaned out at any angle, so for a down-hill slope pull it closer, and for an uphill-one lean it further away. The step section can be kept with the steps horizontal with that simple adjustment. Even easier, many models have an adjustable height on the tripod leg, so by shortening or lengthening it you keep the steps horizontal, no matter where you need to place the foot of the third leg. So uneven surfaces are no longer a problem – you can even use it along garden steps.

Even more useful is the ease with which you can slide the tripod leg inside your hedges, making it possible to climb up and face the hedge straight on. Not only is that a much safer working position, it gives you more reach onto the top, and further back. The top step is now right against the hedge, and you can use the trimmers to their maximum extent. Until you try it, you can hardly believe how much easier this is. There is only one situation where facing the hedge can be difficult, and that is on a steep slope, where the two front legs are not level enough for safety, however that is partly compensated for by the design.

What is a Tripod Ladder Like?

The front of a tripod ladder is designed for safety in the garden. Instead of sides that are parallel, they flare out, so the lowest steps are much wider than the upper ones. This creates a very stable tripod-effect and means that when you lean to one side or another, you are much safer, and there is much less chance of the ladder tipping sideways, even if it has a bit of a lean to left or right. So minor unevenness of the ground under the step legs is not the problem it can be for a conventional ladder. For a steeper slope you do need to face the ladder up or down the slope.

The third leg attaches with a hinge just below the top of the ladder, and it can be angled outward without any restraints. This raises the only safety concern. If you have smooth stone or paved surfaces in front of your hedges, then the legs can slide more easily. If the ladder has an adjustable third leg, so that you can keep the angle constant no matter if the ground falls or rises, then the leg will be chained for safety. Some manufactures supply non-slip feet for use on hard surfaces, and these are definitely worth having – and remembering to put on when needed.

Tripod ladders are available in height between 5 and 16 feet, usually in one-foot increments. Not all manufacturers will cover the full range. Some have a wider platform on that all-important ‘third step from the top’ which is the safe place to stand when working from a ladder. This is very helpful too, for extra stability and safety. On the third step from the top you can work with both arms free, without danger of tipping over.Go higher and you can fall, like tipping over a balcony with a too-low railing.

So Where Can I Buy a Tripod Ladder?

If you Google them you will see lots for sale in the United Kingdom, but they can be found in America too. A major US supplier is Hasegawa, with distributors on both coasts. An American manufacturer is Stokes Ladders, who also have a network of distributors. There are others too. Finding a ladder is not going to be much of a problem for you, wherever you live. If you are a serious gardener, you will wonder how you ever lived without one.

Trim Your Hedges Safely

With the weather warming up, the first trim of hedges, screens and specimen evergreens is on the calendar for many gardeners. Gardening is a great activity, and it is good exercise too, but there are hidden risks. Accidents are much more common than often thought, and although mowing lawns is the most dangerous activity, falls and cuts are alarmingly common too. Trimming hedges and evergreens involves ladders and sharp tools, so it pays to know what you are doing and to take care. Strangely, professionals are trained and often certified to use equipment and tools that home gardeners simply pick up at a hardware and start using with no understanding of the risks, or how to work safely. Don’t add yourself to the accident statistics.

Keep tools safe for use

Hedge trimmers are potentially dangerous, so make sure you know how to use them safely. The first step is to read the manual and pay attention to the specific safety features of your machine. All three types of trimmers – electric, gasoline and battery – have their own potential problems, and if you aren’t aware of them accidents are more likely.

  • Keep equipment maintained and sharp – clean your machine after use. Prepare it properly for winter storage. Lubricate as needed. Have the blades sharpened regularly. Depending on your machine, you may be able to learn how to do that correctly yourself, or you can take it to a professional. Sharp tools are no only safer, as they are less likely to snag, but they make clean cuts, so your hedge will look better too.
  • Check all cords and plugs – never use an electric trimmer with a damaged cord, or loose plugs. Even in a short-circuit doesn’t kill you, the shock can throw you off a ladder.
  • Never work with electricity in damp weather – if you live in an area where damp and rainy weather is common, a gasoline or battery machine may be a better choice.
  • Switch off when moving around – unplug your trimmer if it doesn’t have a safety lock. Stop a gasoline engine. Walking around or climbing ladders with a running machine is an accident waiting to happen.
  • Store in a secure place – children are fascinated by tools. Make sure they can’t get at the trimmer by storing it in a locker or locked shed.

Use Tools Safely

Just as important as keeping the tools themselves safe, is using them safely. Never be in a hurry – that’s when accidents happen. Take your time, get into the correct positions to work, operate tools safely, and wear safety equipment.

  • Wear safety goggles and gloves – flying particles and dust can get into your eyes. That happening suddenly can distract you and cause an accident, and of course the particle in your eye is already an accident. Wear gloves that give you a better grip and protect your hands. If up a ladder, wear a hard hat – professionals do it, and you can too. A hat with an integrated face shield is more comfortable than goggles.
  • Keep your feet safe – don’t work in bare feet or flipflops. When standing on the ground you can carelessly lower the tip of moving trimmers to your feet. Wear sturdy outdoor shoes – you will have a better grip on the ground, and less chance of slipping too.
  • Always keep both hands on the trimmer – this is a big one. Trimmers have a grip for the second hand – use it all the time. Not only does it allow you to balance the weight, reducing strain, but you can’t accidently get your free hand in the blade if you don’t have a hand free. If you need to stretch out single-handed to trim, move your position instead.
  • Never touch the blade while plugged in – never, ever carry a trimmer by the blade. Never try to remove something jammed in it without first unplugging or turning off.
  • Only cut thin branches – if it has been a while since you trimmed, some of the branches you need to cut may be too thick. Don’t try to hold one end with one hand, while operating the trimmer with the other, as a way to cut it. Carry hand pruners – in a holster – and use them to cut anything too thick for an easy cut with the trimmers.

Working at height

Standing on the ground and trimming is one thing – working off ladders or platforms is another thing altogether.

  • Stay on the ground – the safest approach is to invest in extendible trimmers with enough height to trim from the ground. If the blade can be tilted at an angle you can even trim the top from the ground. As well as being much safer, it is a lot faster and easier working from the ground, so you save time and effort too.
  • Use a tripod ladder – If you need to use a ladder, regular step-ladders are not ideal. Tripod ladders, also called orchard ladders, with flared bases and a single back leg, are much safer. The flared base reduces the chance of tipping, and the single leg allows you to put the ladder facing the hedge, instead of sideways. The tripod leg fits right inside the hedge. This is a much easier working position, especially for trimming the top. If you have trees to prune too, you will find that so much easier with a tripod ladder. These are the choice of professionals, but strangely rarely used by home gardeners.
  • Stop the feet sinking in the ground – on soft ground the feet of a ladder can easily sink in. If that happens when you are up it, the ladder can easily tip. Have a board of a suitable size to place underneath the feet. Not only will that prevent sinking, it will give you a more stable base. Have a few small pieces with you to level it as necessary. Tripod ladders don’t have an anchor on the third leg, and usually don’t need support – they are designed for soft surfaces, and they can be dangerous if used on asphalt or pathways. Have a regular step-ladder as well for those situations.
  • Never climb an unstable ladder – always keep the base of a ladder horizontal. If it is crooked it will tip with your weight on top. Falls are a major gardening accident, and they can be serious if not fatal.

All these things are common sense, but it is amazing how often people get themselves into dangerous situations. Bravado and taking risks seems to be a ‘guy thing’, but staying alive, with all your fingers attached, is a ‘guy thing’ too!