The Q&A Archives: How to trim newly planted 7-gal. variegated privet for a shorter, cascading look

Question: After reading through your Q&A area about variegated privet shrubs, I am having a good laugh at myself. I leapt before I looked!

We moved to an older house here in Dallas in late 2003, and put off doing much in the poorly kept yard we inherited. I noticed that some shrubs under our front bedroom window, which faces southwest but has a lot of time in the shade, were rather nice and last year filled out well with our care and watering. They were about 3 feet high and lovely cascading long branches that moved softly in the wind. The leaves were a medium green with a white edge. I decided that I wanted these shrubs to be the predominant ones along the front of the house, in between the nandinas that point up the front porch and corners of the house. My yard service found out that the shrubs were variegated privet and bought them for me. Since the privets under the bedroom window were very weak looking this spring (hit with too much cold? should have been cut back severely?), I decided it would be best to just replace them along with the new landscaping. I put in 27, 7-gal of these bushes. I must say that I now understand why they look so scraggly from reading the posts. I didn?t do my homework before I bought! My goodness ? up to 12 feet high! Well, at least you are saying that they can be trimmed just about any way one would want. These shrubs were planted close together, 3? apart, next to the house, and there is nothing I can do about it now, so I will make the best of it, hopefully.

My main question is this: the shrubs are all about 3 feet high, and most have 6-8 main branches sprouting from the ground. Pretty naked down low and thin looking overall. There are some side branches and spouted branches down low, but not dense at all. There are some side branches also as you go up, but, again, it?s very thin. Then you can see that someone decided to chop them off at about 3 feet up and the tops of the branches have side spouts at the tips. It all looks very unkempt. I would love to obtain a dense look of the falling and cascading branches that the old bushes had, but I don?t know what to do. I would like to know whether it would be best to just start over and severely cut these guys back right now (end of May in Dallas, Texas) according to your instructions, and eventually have thick shrubs, or cut them some other way to achieve the falling over / cascading look. I need to keep them at about 30? so they don?t block the windows too much. Some of the bushes are in afternoon sun for a few hours, some get mottled sun/shade, and others are in shade, so I know I will have problems. I will try to keep trimming the shaded bushes and give them more food.

Any ideas on how to trim for the look I want would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks for a truly wonderful site!

Sara Guettel
Dallas, Texas

Answer: Based on your description I hope the original plants were truly variegated privet and not something else altogether such as a variegated form of Abelia. In the long run, I think you could cut them off very short (nearly at the ground) annually in late winter or early spring. The shade should keep them a bit lax and floppy as they regrow and they should hit about three feet or so by the end of the season. The repeated cutting down will help them get denser from the base from year to year. Do not trim them repeatedly during the season though as that will cause them to be branched and "bushy" like a trimmed hedge rather than loosely arching or cascading. You probably would not need to fertilize them, as this would just make them get bigger faster. As for what to do right now, I would be concerned about trimming them back hard just now because they do need to become rooted and the foliage helps fuel them to do that. On the other hand, these are very tough plants and they are in the shade so they will not be quite so heat stressed this summer. If they look so terrible (compared to what you had in mind), and they were mine, I would probably cut them down now regardless but being aware it is a risky thing to do so late in the season. Try to keep the soil evenly moist (not sopping wet) this first season to help them become established. Good luck with your experiment!

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