Greenbelt’s historic hedges, originally just 18″ tall, must have seemed like an attractive garden feature in the ’30s. but over the years they’ve gotten out of control and become huge maintenance problems for residents (GHI members) and obstacles for pedestrians along the inner sidewalks. And unfortunately, pruning to reduce the size of these overgrown hedges is a skill that’s possessed by very few – even among experienced gardeners.
So the newly formed Old Greenbelt Gardening Boosters have launched a project to teach residents to fix their problem hedges! And it’s a terrific job for the home-bound during a pandemic – be outdoors, be productive, be safe, and get some great exercise.
Though experienced gardeners themselves, the Boosters wanted to make sure they were diagnosing Greenbelters’ pruning problems correctly, so they hired a professional for the job – an expert from Yankee Clippers. That’s the well-respected Bethesda-based shrub-pruning company. (It was founded by Elizabeth Doyle in 1991 in New York, then moved to the DC area in ’96.) The company sent Shanti de Jongh to Old Greenbelt to teach some hedge-bound GHI members how to fix their hedges while I and Melissa Mackey (also a GHI member and president of the Beltsville Garden Club) watched and learned.
The training session with Shanti was sponsored by this nonprofit community website – Greenbelt Online.
Before you Start
- Hand pruner, bypass type like the Felco No. 2 hand pruner or a similar but less expensive one by Corona. Avoid “anvil-type” hand pruners. (Shanti uses a Florian Ratchet-cut Pruner for greater strength. Some of us have tried ratchet-type pruning tools but have found them difficult to master.)
- Folding hand saw, of which there are several choices under $20, are used for larger cuts.
Interestingly, unlike most of us regular gardeners, Shanti and other Yankee Clipper pruners don’t use loppers (middle above) for actual pruning, preferring the closer cut possible with the saw. (Most gardeners use loppers to remove larger branches than hand pruners can handle; the Fiscars lopper will cut up to 2″ thick branches and costs $40.) The Clippers DO use loppers for clean-up and removing dead branches. For pruning tall branches, they rely on pole pruners,which weren’t needed for the hedges Shanti tackled that day with us.
If you’re new to pruning, there’s a great video by horticulturist Melinda Myers to get you started.
With all pruning jobs, start by standing back and looking at the plant from where you normally see it to decide what your pruning objective will be. Then continue to stand back throughout any pruning job to re-assess. This not only guides your next cuts; it can reassure you that the shrub still looks fine (despite the often shocking amounts of plant being removed).
The Most Common Hedge Plants in GHI
NOTE: no matter which shrubs you may have, the pruning practices Shanti teaches are basically the same. The result will be shrubs that look more natural and that require much less frequent pruning to keep them looking good. They’ll also be healthier.
Euonymus – reducing size is an inside job
We first directed Shanti to overgrown examples of our most common hedge type – euonymus – and there were plenty to choose from! In this first video she calls euonymus “really easy!” Start with “fly-aways” and cut them not at the outer edge but “way deep down below.” Using the hand pruner, cut the tallest branches way below the ultimate height you want, each cut randomly to different heights. This not only reduces the size in a way that looks natural but also opens up the plant for light and air! If your plants are overgrown by a lot, this will probably need to be done over two seasons but will then be needed much less frequently than with shearing. In her experience, a euonymus pruned correctly needs pruning no more than twice a year, and sometimes just once a year.
Important note: she told us that euonymus can be hand-pruned any time of the year, and that almost all shrubs can be, too.
Shanti also talks about cutting “to the green.” Another way to describe that is to simply cut above a “crotch” or side branch, selecting a cut where you’d like a new branch to start (new growth will branch out where you make the cut). Notice her moving about in the shrub to keep the cuts at somewhat staggered heights inside the hedge, also to distribute new fullness which will respond to more light from the newly opened top of the hedge. At 1:03 she describes how to hide your cuts, which is a tip we’d never heard before – great tip!
Also, notice her slight Dutch accent?
Euonymus – keeping them away from sidewalks
In “Pruning Demo Part 2” Shanti shows how to keep the shrubs away from sidewalks (or wherever you don’t want them). You’ll hear her say that “Being euonymus, I don’t have to cut right to the crotch,” which surprised us, but that’s how forgiving euonymus is.
(Cutting to a side branch may not be mandatory with euonymus but it sure looks better to avoid the stumps that result from cutting just anywhere. The video “How to Make Pruning Cuts” from the University of Kentucky demonstrates where to make cuts for most shrubs.)
The key to keeping shrubs from spreading sideways (toward sidewalks) is to make cuts just above branches that will grow upright, not toward the sidewalk.
One of the Gardening Boosters, Mike Bordelon, plant scientist with lots of experience growing shrubs, suggests a more radical approach: “A lot of hedges I have seen are too big to start with, especially when there is a hedge on the other side of the walk. Those should be cut back hard just to get the size down. They will grow back in time. They should also be shaped so they are wider on the bottom like a cone. This will allow more light to the lower part.”
Euonymus – renewal pruning when the inside is bare
In “Pruning Demo Part 3” Shanti looked inside some shrubs and found no green to cut to in the middle of them. She explains that “This is the problem with shearing – a perfect example…There’s nothing inside. It’s just sticks, so that is a problem. With shearing it looks lush for a while, until it doesn’t… Take deep, random cuts. Open it up. Get more light and air back inside.”
We looked for a video about removing “grandfather stems,” which is called renewal pruning, and here’s an excellent one promising “more blooms on overgrown shrubs.” The process demonstrated on a lilac applies also to evergreen shrubs like euonymus.
(Sound above is low: click “cc” for captions.)
Euonymus and deer damage
Shanti recognized these troubled euonymus as victims of deer and signed “They’ll keep coming back.” The only recourse is to reduce the height and thin the top (following her instruction), so the whole plant looks more in balance.
Euonymus and correcting for power-tool damage
Below you see how a hired “landscaper” damaged a hedge by using a power shearing tool to reduce the height, rather than cutting each stem individually by hand. Shanti reassured us that being euonymus, they’ll survive, but to make them look better she suggested cutting all the stems back to different heights, randomly, making cleaner cuts than this ragged ones you see here.
Euonymus that may be goners
When a sheared euonymus hedge is doing fine
The euonymus hedges at the Greenbelt Museum (photo right) are routinely sheared, they look healthy, and don’t need to be drastically reduced in size, so is it okay to continue the shearing? Sure, but to keep them healthy, it’s a good idea to create some random openings in the top to allow more light into the interior.
These second-most-common shrubs for Greenbelt hedges are less vigorous than euonymus and less likely to be sprawling across sidewalks, but the same principles and practices of pruning apply to them.
The privet hedge above would benefit from some renewal pruning – removing a third to half of the older, larger stems all the way to the ground. New growth from the base will create a fuller shrub in no time (especially if they’re growing in full sun, as these are.)
Above left is a Japanese holly, which is often mistaken for a boxwood. Follow the same advice as for eunonymus – open it up by making deep cuts, removing stems back several inches, not at the outer edge. And the same goes for Itea (Virginia sweetspire) above right. One additional job with this plant is to remove the travelers – the suckering offspring – by simply pulling them up (unless you WANT a spreading mass of them.).
More pruning videos, curated for accuracy
- “Early spring pruning of roses and more” covers roses, hibiscus, buddleia, later-blooming spireas, late-blooming hydrangeas, crepe myrtles, crabapples, juniper and boxwood.
- “Pruning spring-flowering shrubs” is for forsythia, evergreen azalea, rhododendrons, lilac, deutzia, kerria, mockoranage, weigela, viburnum, st. johnswort, redtwig and yellowtwig dogwoods, Virginia sweetspire, quince, spring-flowering roses, and spring-blooming spirea.forsythia, rhododendron,
Get In-Garden Help for YOUR Shrubs
As much as text, photos and especially videos can help teach and inspire people to learn to prune, there’s no substitute for having someone assessing your own shrubs, recommending a course of action and then demonstrating it.
You can hire Shanti to do just that for $180. That’s the company’s two-hour minimum for a private lesson, at $90/hour for Greenbelt, which is outside their usual territory. To make it affordable, we suggest teaming up with neighbors who also have hedge problems to share the training session. When we hired Shanti, she was able to work on the hedges of six different GHI members in just 1.5 hours, including twice driving to different parts of the community.
To request a training session, start here on the Yankee Clippers website. The Yankee Clippers (who are almost all women) can either teach you to prune or do the job FOR you. Read more about them in the Washington Post.
Alternatively, one of the Gardening Boosters will work with GHI members individually to assess their shrubs and demonstrate the corrective pruning they need – in a risk-free way, of course, until the pandemic is over. Email email@example.com for this free help. We encourage everyone with hedges along sidewalks to get help and take action to make our sidewalks safer.
Written by Susan Harris. Originally published April 6, 2020, but to be updated with before/after photos, etc.