Splayed Privet Hedges

Winter is a harsh time for both people and plants. As we huddle indoors, keeping out of the snow, ice and wind our treasured plants are feeling the full brunt of the weather. Woody plants, in particular, are prone to winter damage because their trunks, branches, stems and buds hang out above ground all year. After a recent storm, I took a drive around town to survey the damage. One of the most obvious problems on that day was splayed privet hedges.

As snow blankets the ground and begins to pile up on roofs and roads, it is also collecting on our hedges.   An improperly maintained privet hedge is very likely to bow under the weight. Proper pruning is the key to avoiding this problem all together.

If you follow these tips, you should have a healthy, sturdy hedge, no matter how many snow storms we have:

  • Keep your hedge healthy: California Privet performs best in full sun, with average, well-drained soil. If a soil test indicates a lack of fertility in the soil, it is wise to apply a fertilizer at the recommended rate. Try not to use privet in shady areas. When planted in dense shade (like on the North side of a building) hedges tend to be spindly, with weak growth that is prone to drooping under the weight of snow and ice. If shaded by a large tree, consider having an arborist thin the canopy to let in more light.
  • Give your hedge the proper shape: Professionally maintained hedges will always be narrower at the top than the bottom. This shape helps distribute the weight of the snow evenly, so that top doesn’t bear the full weight, causing it to splay. During the growing season, this shape also allows the maximum amount of sun to reach the bottom of the hedge, keeping it dense all the way to the ground.
  • Whack it back: Every few years, the hedge should be rejuvenated by hard pruning during dormancy. Hedges that are constantly sheared on the same plane begin to form a thick layer of tiny twigs at the outside. This provides a surface for snow and ice to accumulate on. I have seen established hedges cut to the ground that have grown to five feet in one season. But if that scares you, consider splitting the job up into sessions during two consecutive winters.  With a pair of sharp, sturdy loppers, cut back the top and one side well below the outer layer of twigs. Don’t be afraid to cut into thick, old wood; Privet plants have hundreds of dormant buds all along their stems – these will break and quickly fill in the area that has been removed.  During the second winter, rejuvenate the remaining side.

  • Lighten the Load: If you haven’t been able to get your pruning done, there is no shame in getting out there and shaking or brushing off the snow with a broom once and a while. However, ice is best left to melt naturally;  trying to knock it off is likely to cause even more breakage.