Pruning a Barberry hedge

(Question)

Hello. I have a very old barberry hedge around my front lawn (pre-1960’s, I’m guessing – the house is 1940’s in Leaside). The hedge is thin sticks at the bottom with most of the growth at the top. The hedge is at least five feet high. This was my parents house and I remember them always shearing the hedge with electric pruners. I want to make the hedge lower and a more manageable shape. When and how should I prune it. I’ve read mixed things. Some say prune in winter and some in summer. There are many of these sparse overgrown hedges in Leaside. I’m assuming they were all planted at the same time. Green foliage in summer, turning reddish in fall with red berries. Japanese Barberry? I also know that some of my neighbours have cut their back and it has taken years for the hedge to come back in height. Would appreciate any advice. Thanks.

(Answer)

Pruning your Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) will definitely help reduce its top heavy shape as more light will be allowed to penetrate the lower region.  Depending on how long your hedge is, you will most likely need some help.  Barberries are best trimmed by hand with a sharp pair of hand pruners.  They can be pruned for shape in the fall and dead branches removed in the spring.  Start by investing in a good pair of leather gardening gloves as these bushes have barbs that can be very painful.  The ultimate goal is to reduce the bush by one third.  Cut out the larger older stems right to the ground.  Remove any dead, broken or crossing branches at the top to encourage an open canopy.  You can cut back some of the new growth also by a third.  Finish by top dressing your hedge with a layer of compost for nutrients and mulch to retain water.  Be sure to leave an inch or so space between the compost/mulch and the stem of the bush to prevent the wood from rotting.