I’m surprised to see so many sheared hedges in Fairbanks. Shearing a row of shrubs not only takes time, the rectangular shape of a formal hedge is incongruous with Alaska’s natural landscape. As I drive through neighborhoods looking at yards, I imagine a pushy shrub-shearing salesman going door to door.

“Ma’am, I couldn’t help but notice that unruly mess of shrubs in your yard,” he says. “Give me half a day, and I can tidy them up.”

But then most gardeners are prone to doing the work themselves. I’m using the word “gardener” in the British sense where gardener means someone who tends the yard, not just the vegetable patch or flower bed. After all, hedges are a British tradition.

Plants with small, closely spaced leaves make good formal hedges but in Interior Alaska, chokecherry, black spruce or any plant that survives the winter is a candidate for shearing. Near Glennallen there’s a woman taming the forest, cutting down the understory with her riding lawn mower and shearing the birch and willow into geometric shapes.

I never would have thought to shear lilac but the hedge at the Interior Community Health Center is exceptionally beautiful. The first time I saw its vibrant maroon fall color, I put the brakes of my car on so fast I’m lucky I didn’t cause an accident. First of all, there are only a few lilacs with fall color that’s not yellow. This year the hedge is a deep purple. It must be Miss Kim.

Secondly, shearing cuts off most of the flower buds. Lilacs develop their flower buds very early, beginning almost as soon as the current season’s flowers finish blooming. A few flower buds will likely escape shearing but flower panicles will not be prominent. They’re tucked down inside the hedge’s rectangular shape. Shearing Miss Kim into a formal hedge was a brilliant and bold move. This hedge is spectacular.

Rose-tree-of-China and forsythia also flower on old wood and like lilac, should be sheared after flowering but before the next season’s flower buds form. Flower buds are bigger and fatter than buds that will become leaves. Alpine currant is easy to maintain if you’re looking for a formal hedge that stays short. Flowers are inconspicuous and the fruit too small to make harvesting worthwhile. Unfortunately, fall color is a dull yellow. It is not recommended to use serviceberry or Nanking cherry as a formal hedge. Shearing greatly reduces the amount of fruit produced.

When planting shrubs for a formal hedge, space plants much closer than their mature spread. Allow the bushes to grow until they almost reach the hedge’s desired height before shearing. Trim off all but one or two inches of new growth. An electric hedge trimmer is faster than using a manual hedge shears. Be careful not to cut down to where there is no foliage growing on the stems or you’ll create a bald spot. New leaves sprout only from those buds located right below where cuts were made.

Formal hedges need to be sheared in spring and fall and maybe during the month in between. The most striking formal hedges have razor sharp edges. Setting a guide string along the horizontal axis will help keep the top of the hedge from undulating or sloping. You can go back and prune out any wayward or mutilated branches after your shearing is finished.

All hedges don’t have to be sheared. 

The tallest formal and informal hedges in Fairbanks are Siberian pea, but if you’re planning to plant a new hedge, cross this plant off your list of possibilities. Branches are thorny and the foliage gets terrible powdery mildew, plus it’s invasive. Cotoneaster makes a striking hedge either sheared or left to grow to its natural form. Its glossy green leaves glow red in September.

The unusual hedge at Golden Valley Electric Association in Fairbanks includes both sheared and unsheared plants. The short, tightly clipped hedge is punctuated at intervals with unsheared dwarf lilacs. Most lilacs would grow too large to use in combination with a manicured hedge. Prairie Petit is an exceptionally compact cultivar with a 4-foot maximum height.

Deciding to plant a hedge that you’re going to shear is like deciding to get a puppy. You need to think about the long-term commitment.

Julie Riley is horticulture agent with UAF Cooperative Extension Service in the Tanana District office in Fairbanks. Her first and last foray shearing shrubbery was in Wisconsin were she was required to help maintain her family’s privet hedge. You can reach Riley at jariley@alaska.edu or at 474-2423.