Let me brag about my hedge.
I started it 10 years ago from trimmings from a neighbor’s columnar yew, much to my husband’s skepticism. He looked at the ragged cuttings, arranged like a tiny forest in a salvaged kitchen drawer filled with damp sand, and said, “That hedge will look good just about in time for my funeral.”
Well, he’s still in excellent health and now enjoying the privacy and year-round greenery of our 7-foot hedge, which is thick and full in large part because of regular trimmings. Slow-growing yews need a trim only two or three times a year; faster-growing hedge shrubs need it as often as once a month during the growing season.
So if you have (or want) a hedge, a power trimmer is just about a must. I’ve tried manual clippers and they’re a bear. I’m big, I’m tall, and I lift weights, but an hour or two of hand clipping makes me feel as if I’ve just spent the day trying to bench-press 250 pounds. Besides, trimmers start at just $25—about what you’d pay for a couple of big bottles of ibuprofen.
Hedging your bets
Before you start shopping around for a hedge trimmer, think about how you will use it. How high is your hedge? Will you be making only straight cuts or will you be doing some shaping, which calls for a shorter blade? How much are you willing to spend? How far away is your hedge from outdoor electrical outlets?
Here are some features to consider when looking for a power hedge trimmer:
Pole hedge trimmers. The long, pole-like handles make them excellent for cutting very high hedges without a ladder. Look for an adjustable cutting bar to get the angle you need for sides and tops.
Double-edged cutting blades. Double-edged blades, the most common type, have teeth on both sides, so you can make cuts as you pass the machine back and forth. They’re designed for trimming hedges up to chest height. They’re also the best for shaping hedges or shrubs. Single-edge blades, on the other hand, make it easier to make straight cuts. Since teeth are only on one side of the blade, the blade weighs less.
Ample blade openings. A 3/4-inch opening between teeth allows lots of small branches to be cut at one time and also protects your fingers.
The right length blade for your landscape. Shorter blades are great for shaping shrubs and smaller hedges; 24-inch blades are long enough for taller hedges. For very tall hedges, look for blades up to 60 inches long, or buy a pole trimmer. It’s worth the extra cost to know you won’t have to climb a wobbly ladder with a power tool in hand.
Blade angles. Check for blades you can set at different angles, making it a breeze to reach hedge tops and awkward spots.
Accessories. On some trimmers you can remove one blade and add another—a very short blade for tight pruning work or a saw for pruning large branches. (Trimmers, as a rule, do best with smaller twigs, like new growth on the outside of hedges, while saws are best for branches about 1 inch in diameter.) On pole-type pruners, a power saw attachment turns the hedge trimmer into a power pole saw—a nice touch. Other accessories include power scythes, cultivators, collection bags, and edgers.
Safety features. Yes, you want to avoid lopping off your pinky. But you also want a machine that isn’t a ridiculous pain to operate. Read the package carefully or talk through safety features with the salesperson to find a balance between safety and easy operation. (When using a power hedge trimmer, wear safety glasses and gloves. With gas engines, wear ear protection.)
Easy does it
I will never again exist on this planet—or at least any part of the planet that contains hedges—without a power hedge trimmer in my garage. A few times a year, I trim my 80 feet of hedge in half an hour with no aches. As a bonus, my hedge trimmer has other uses in the garden. It’s good for cutting back aggressive ground covers, and it dramatically reduces fall clean-up time in my perennial flower beds. Instead of laboriously cutting back each perennial to an inch or two above the ground with hand pruners or loppers, I pull out my power hedge trimmer and level everything in minutes, like a horticultural version of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And hey, isn’t that what power tools are all about?
Buy the right power hedge trimmer
Corded electric trimmer
Advantages: Powerful and usually weighs less than 10 pounds. Fairly quiet, putting out a hum that’s about as loud as a washing machine on the spin cycle. Environmentally friendly. Automatic startup prevents the rip-start frustration of gas engines.
Disadvantages: The cord limits how far away you can work from an electrical source. Use only a GFIC (Ground Fault Interrupter Circuit) outlet to prevent shock. Also, cords have a highly irritating habit of coming unplugged.
Features to look for:
• High amperage. The more power the motor has, the better the quality of the cut. A 2.5-amp motor is recommended as the minimum; a 4.5-amp motor is considered fairly powerful.
• Well-designed plug. Avoid trimmers that have a simple “male” part in the rear handle into which you plug the “female” end of an extension cord. It disconnects easily. Instead, look for a mini-cord on the trimmer that allows you to knot the cord so it doesn’t come unplugged. Some models have molded-in cord retainer designs that minimize unplugging. Read the package carefully or talk with the salesperson.
Price range: $20 to $200
Advantages: Runs for fairly long periods of time without constraints of electrical outlets, cords, or dying batteries. Best for large jobs.
Disadvantages: Usually noisier, heavier (at 10 to 15 pounds), more expensive, and less environmentally friendly than an electric trimmer.
Features to look for:
• Weight. When shopping, lift the trimmer up to the highest level at which you’d use it. Imagine holding it there for an hour or more.
• Safety. Look for blades that stop when the engine idles. Without this feature, you have to turn the hedge trimmer off in order to move safely to another work area.
• See-through fuel tank. Allows you to see when it’s time to refuel.
• Emission control. You don’t want fumes pumping into your face—or the ozone, either.
Price range: $50 to $600 (for professional grade)
Advantages: Quiet, light, and highly portable.
Disadvantages: Not very powerful. Runs for a limited time on a full charge. One model, for example, runs for only 30 minutes on a battery that takes six hours to charge. A solution may be to purchase two batteries to extend use time. Good choice only for small hedges in a setting where loud trimmers would be too intrusive, such as an urban garden.
Features to look for:
• Charge time. In some models, it takes only two or three hours to charge the battery.
• Run time. Conversely, check the amount of time the trimmer will run on one fully charged battery—it ranges from 30 minutes to several hours.
Price range: $50 to $150