Hawthorn Hedge Disaster - Help!

We planted a hawthorne hedge bought from a local garden centre that had been recommended to us about 3 years ago.
We explained where we were planting it, what for etc and they advised us just to plant it and leave it be. Which we did. Having now done some independent research it has become clear that there should have been much more to it than this (i.e. cutting back to half size at planting, spraying the ground around it before planting, clipping back after 1 year and possibly using spirals etc etc).
The hedge has grown a little bit in some places and quite a lot in others but I fear we may have a disaster on our hands as it has never been clipped back and has an enormous amount of weeds around it which are no doubt stifiling its growth.
I would really appreciate some advice on how we could try to rescue the hedge. Especially if, when and how we should clip it back and also if there is anything we can do at this stage/time of year to combat the weeds. The good news is all the plants have taken but the bad news is that it seems we have managed it very poorly from the start through lack of advice and being novice gardeners/lack of research on our part.
It is planted near a lot of very old well established hawthorn hedges so we know that the soil etc it is in should be fine but obviously there was a lot we should have done from the outset that hasn't been done. Is there any hope!!!??
--
hels_bells


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On Mon, 21 May 2012 17:20:53 +0000, hels_bells

I'm not sure what spirals are (tree wrap, perhaps?), but here's what I'd do:
1) trim the hedge carefully (not just whack it into a geometric shape, but look at what you might be able to do to get the neighboring plants to fill in for an undersized one if the gappiness continues.)
2) Figure out what weeds you have and what you'll have to do to get rid of them,then do so. I'd try to use a light-occlusive mulch myself, but some weeds are nasty enough that I'd break out a selectively applied herbicide just for them. If you're using light-occlusive mulch (my favorite is corrugated cardboard with something decorative over the top), then cut the weeds down to ground level before applying the mulch. Watch for weed regrowth, and knock it back ASAP -- a weekly tour of the planting with hoe in hand would be a good idea.
3) If your plants have bare legs and they shouldn't, pull the lower branches out and peg them down to improve the shape of the bottom of the hedge. You may also want to propagate some clippings in case you need to fill in.
I'm in the US, so hesitate to give advice about when and how hard to prune, but I know there are excellent books on formal hedges and on pruning available in the UK. Study the pruning manuals carefully as to where and how to cut to persuade the plant to grow in the shape you are hoping for. Never remove more than 30% of the plant's top growth in a year, unless you're willing to accept that the plant may die -- I usually go for no more than 20% pruning as a rule of thumb.
In general, removing the tips of branches encourages dormant buds to sprout lower on the plant, making the plant "bushier". Some species will respond to pruning in this manner by new growth only closest to the pruning site, while others will develop new branches much farther down. Without knowing the species in your hedge, I can't guess.
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Personally, I am not a fan of nicely trimmed, single species hedges. They're a lot of work, they're not much use for wildlife habitat, and one of the plants in the hedge (inevitably!) doesn't grow as well, or grows too well, and it looks gap-toothed. On the other hand, you can mix together several different species in a meandered border and even if you lose a few or you don't do anything to them for several years, it'll still look fine.
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