I would not like to guess the miles of hedges that I have cut over the two plus decades of maintaining gardens but it is many.
Hedge cutting is very hard work but extremely rewarding. Maybe it is the time of year when the aggressive heat (I hear you all laugh as you take off your wellingtons after mopping out the potting shed - again!) subsides and a gentle autumnal warmth and kind atmosphere descends.
Before you start
Before you cut a single stem or leaf, it is imperative that you have the right hedge cutting machine for the job. If you intend to a lot of work then push the boat out and buy a quality make. The blades move at very high speeds and the engine will need to work very hard as well so reliability is worth paying for.
If you already have a hedge cutting machine then give it the once over and if you cut a lot of hedges it is important to sharpen the blades.
Contractors should always sharpen at the start of the two main seasons - spring and late summer. It is important that the blades are ground back evenly.
If you are cutting Box - Buxus or Yew - Taxus or conifer, it is very important to have sharpened blades otherwise the tips of the vegetation will become stringy and bruised. You may not notice straight away but within days the hedge will become brown and ugly.
Keep your machine clean - if you only use the machine occasionally through the year; you might need to replace the spark plug if there is a lot of work to do. There is nothing worse than stop start stop start when the plug is worn, coked or oiled up.
Remove and blow out the air filter - you do not normally find a paper cartridge in hedge cutters but if you do, either blow out the dust or replace this. Most hedge cutters have a little foam insert which needs to me washed in a little petrol (this cleans off any old oil) then washed in a detergent and dried thoroughly - an air compressor is good for this - now lightly oil the foam (a light gear oil is good) The oil will ensure that fine particles of dust will not get through the foam and cause a you problem.
Last of all, check and oil the throttle cable and replace if necessary. Check all screws and bolts.
When using the machine it is necessary to oil the blade every 5-10 minutes or so; oiling will stop excessive wear and reduce the heat in the blades. If the blades get too hot they will become blunt very quickly and you may find that they become difficult to sharpen or will lose their edge very quickly in the future. A squirt from an oil can over the full length or brush over with a wide brush dipped in a pot of oil.
Check the grease in the gearbox is sufficient too. Let this dry out and it could wreck the machine. Replace faulty gaskets if you see grease leaking out.
Working above ground using machinery that is extremely sharp can be a lethal combination. I still bear a scar above my left knee caused by a blade that had not stopped properly.
I had been cutting vegetation that was shoulder level for a long period. Relieved that the little run had come to an end and physically struggling to hold the machine at the right angle, I let gravity assist me in getting the machine down.
Unfortunately, the blades were still reciprocating and the blade met with my knee cutting a two inch gash to a depth of about half an inch, as clean as a whistle.
I completed the job in pain (although because the cut was clean there was little blood) but needed stitches and could not work properly for days because the bruising meant that bending the knee was too painful.
Eye protection is essential because of sharp debris that can be thrown out of the machine. Ear defenders are also extremely important if you are using the machine for long periods - caution: wearing ear defenders whilst working adjacent to a road can hamper your ability to hear traffic properly - it is surprising how much noise is redirected back to the user as it rebounds from the hedge.
Work for periods of no more than an hour without a break. Fumes from petrol machines can become trapped in the hedge and they are then released back to you slowly through the foliage. This can cause weariness and fatigue as the carbon monoxide reduces your oxygen intake. If you are working on ladders or on scaffolding then there is the likelihood of disorientation which may cause a fall.
Operating a buddy buddy system is vital in case of any accident. If you are a contractor and employ gardeners then you are obliged to ensure that they are safe - commercial gardeners have a legal obligation and a duty of care towards their operatives.
If you do work alone then asking the client (or family member if it's your own garden) to periodically check that you are safe - take it from me, accidents DO happen and when you least expect them.
Start by trimming the sides. The depth of cut will be determined by the material you are cutting. Hawthorn - Crataegus - for example, can be cut back hard to the previous cut even if you lose some of the leaves,, but be careful. The more manicured the Hawthorn the more likely to get die-back, possibly leading to some remedial pruning in the winter to stimulate re-growth.
Privett can take all kinds of beatings and is really resilient. Some conifers will regenerate if cut beyond its living growth but most will only be able to be trimmed back to about half an inch from the last green shoot. Whatever you do, do not cut into brown stems otherwise this will leave a hole that may never recover.
It pays to be hard every year from the the first season if you need a conifer hedge to remain compact and manageable.
Beech - Fagus is good for trimming hard - general rule of thumb - prune in winter to re-shape and trim in late summer (hard) to tidy up. When trimmed regularly Beech will retain its leaves because they remain in a juvenile state. A golden Beech hedge in winter can be as attractive as a young lime green hedge as it opens in the spring; leaving some leaves is beneficial visually and also helps as a wind break too.
Note of caution for Beech - blight is common when cutting in late summer so to avoid breathing in the dust, it is advisable to wear a mask.
Some conifers and Yew are irritating to the skin so keep your sleeves rolled down. Keeping the sleeves rolled down will also ensure that your forearms are not lacerated by prickles or brambles.
Once you have cut the sides then tackle the top. It is always best if you can avoid leaning into a hedge. You could fall through but also it can mess up the shape. A good hedge is like a signature and an art. Take a look at some examples at the Gardener to the Big House Blog to see how rewarding and attractive a well cut hedge is.
If you are forced to lean into a difficult hedge then the 'T' board method is great.
Hiring a hydraulic platform is a cheap alternative and also there are many aluminium towers or ladders which will suit most peoples needs.
Hiring versus buying - if you pay out more than 20% a year of the value of a tower or specialised ladder than it would cost to buy then I would buy one so that you have the flexibility of using it when you need to.
When you are cutting, sweep the blades from right to left holding your left hand close to you. As you sweep , most of the cuttings will fall straight off of the hedge. I also used to have a cut stick which could reach the far side of the hedge to sweep the remainder off.
A little trick when you think you have cut your hedge well on the side, tap the face gently with the back of a spring rake. Some of the long ends that can be folded back and get caught up, will spring back out. Trim these off and this way you will avoid the hedge looking unsightly after a couple of days if the twigs were to have sprung out on their own.
Keep a pair of secateurs handy for trimming off any stubborn twigs or brambles. If you encounter a pernicious stem such as Ash - Fraxinus growing through a yew hedge, for example, it will be extremely difficult if not impossible to get the root out so trimming will be necessary.
Do not just trim the Ash level with the top of the hedge, it will cause a knuckle of growth that will just get harder and harder to cut and may cause a hole to appear in the hedge.
Cut the trunk or stem at ground level if you can access it. This will mean that the Ash may now be starved of light and not re-grow at all or become weak and take several years to become a problem again. You may also be able to drill a hole in the stem and inject some Glyphosate to try and kill the root.One of my favourite set of hedges I used to cut was at the house of Lord and Lady Lubbock, of Adhurst, in Steep, Petersfield. Their house was a great big Gothic style mansion and they only lived in a small portion of the property because of the cost of the upkeep.
Both of the Lubbocks were in their nineties if not over a hundred and it was like going back in time when Tony Madeley and I turned up every autumn to cut the hedges adjacent to the walled garden.
I do not suppose they had seen the hedges for many years due to their age and frail health but the area of the vast estate obviously held some fond memories and they insisted the hedges and surrounding area was always kept maintained (although, the once fine lawns and formal gardens, were by now, badly neglected).
As I said earlier, it was like going back in time on the estate with Ted Float the woodman, living in a tied cottage next to the walled garden and gardeners Henry and Fred, would do an hour of gardening a day.
They were both in their eighties and the garden long since gone to seed but their employers, the Lubbocks, stayed loyal to them and provided them work until they were too old. Henry used to cycle in from the village on one of the those black bikes with the curved handlebars from the war era.
The house was acquired by a developer who renovated and developed the house but run out of money. It has been used in many films since.