Juniper Needs Pruning, Eats Path (or, The Heap Revisited)

Years of garden observation have given me a firm belief in 4-S ( Spare the Shears, Spoil the Shrub), but I still don’t do all that much pruning. Sometimes it’s because there’s simply too much else to do (see the original Heap, a spiraea of monumental untidiness) and sometimes it’s because the pruning is Bill’s department (see Fruit Tree Pruning Time).

But sometimes it’s because I’m reluctant to mess with something gorgeous, even when its increasing gorgeousness starts causing traffic problems.

spreading juniper

This is one of the junipers that came with the house. That angled object over on the far left is the edge of the greenhouse. Between them is – theoretically – a path that’s 3 feet wide. Between them is – actually – a gap of about 13 inches.

You can see why Bill warned me that if I didn’t get it out of the way he would lop off all offending branches in a straight line.

But here’s the thing about juniper pruning; it’s easy when the plant is young, then the older and woodier it gets the harder it is to re-shape or re-size. Junipers branch eagerly when you cut back fresh green growth, but bare old wood will not put out new branches no matter how healthy it is.

Let’s say you have a major branch that’s 9 feet long but only green for the last 2 feet (that would be a lower branch, long shaded by those above). You have only two choices:

1. Cut back about 22 inches to a healthy looking Y of sub branches. This will produce a wider, thicker, but regrettably soon even longer fan of fresh foliage. Reduce length this way again and again and what’ll you have? A naked 7 foot branch with a bottle brush on the end.

2. Remove the whole branch at the base, leaving a gaping hole that will not be filled in except by new growth coming down from above. Regrettably, new growth won’t come down from above unless a.) the hole is so widely gaping it lets in a flood of sunlight and b.) the branch above is not itself bald where you need the new growth.

This is why one is commonly advised to cut down overlarge old junipers, rather than trying to fix them.

Well, phooey on that, as Celia says. A Brobdinagian bonsai like this one is redeemable; you just have to go at it slowly, holding all the possible next moves and their consequences in your head at the same time, playing the usual pruners’ chess at a slightly higher level. The picture makes it look as though you could just lop everything off at that V in the snow, for instance.

Words cannot express how badly that would work out, but simplification-by-snow is useful for showing where the biggest holes are. That’ll be good to know next spring when I resume the careful restructuring that was started last year and it’s for sure the first thing to go will be the tall cowlick on top. I had it square in my sights last April right before I tore my knee.

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  • Terri Said,

    Hi, I have an over grown juniper much like the one in your picture, was wondering about pruning it back. It’s in the corner of the lawn where the fence meets at the corner. It’s about 3 1/2-4 ft tall and approx. 9 feet in all directions, help me!!! It’s over taken that corner and my boyfriend won’t cut it down, I need to prune! I did talk him into cutting back the first layer or two of his grossly over grown pine trees. They are huge and beautiful but a bit too much of a good thing. I have another question I was wondering if you could answer for me…i bought Soring bulbs last fall and forgot to plant them..what is teh best thing to do with them now? Leave and plant in teh fall , or plant now ? Help!! Hope you will email me back! Thanks!!

  • Terri Said,


  • Peter Said,

    Embrace the voids. The entire essence of Japanese tree pruning. I can do this for job for you or advise you to do yourself. Check out my webpage and facebook page.!/groups/82998521983/


    Welcome, Peter,
    And thanks for your offer. I’m happy to say the pruning DID get done (this post was put up in 2008). Less happy to say I’ll be pruning again shortly; our massive October snowstorm storm didn’t do much damage, but what it did do demands attention. Nothing to what befell the magnolia, but that’s another story.

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