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Pruning Conifers for Health

Dead, diseased, or damaged branches should be removed when the problem arises

One reason to like conifers is that they generally require little pruning. Still, it is occasionally necessary to prune these plants to improve appearance and/or to prevent future problems. It’s important to remember though, conifers are not like other woody plants. They respond differently to pruning, often not resprouting new growth if you make cuts in the wrong location. Think of them as beautiful, but finicky.

In this video, Bert Cregg, an associate professor of horticulture and forestry at Michigan State University, demonstrates how to prune a common juniper (Juniperus communis, Zones 3–9) that has suffered damage either from winter weather or a fungus.

Step 1: Prune out any damage

The damaged shoots are easy to spot (generally brown or discolored in some way) and should be pruned all the way back to the healthy part of the plant, even if that is the base, because junipers will not grow from old wood.

Step 2: Make heading cuts to improve habit

At times it may be desirable to prune a conifer to improve its shape and fullness, even if it has no damaged shoots. Pruning the plant for this purpose involves making heading back cuts of longer shoots in order to reduce the size and increase the fullness. Cregg recommends cutting back to a branch union. As long as foliage is growing there, pruning will create new growth points and make the growth fuller.

The methods outlined in this video, although demonstrated on a common juniper, can also be applied to pruning other evergreen conifers such as arborvitae (Thuja spp. and cvs., Zones 5–9), false cypress (Chamaecyparis spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9), yews (Taxus  spp. and cvs., Zones 4–8), pines (Pinus  spp. and cvs., Zones 2–9), hemlocks (Tsuga spp. and cvs., Zones 3–8), firs (Abies spp. and cvs., 3–7), and spruces (Picea spp. and cvs., Zones 2–7).

Pruning of this nature can be done any time the problem arises.

Previous: How to Prune Conifers Next: How to Prune Pine Trees
View Comments


  1. maureen_rosen 08/25/2014

    We have yews,probably as old as I am, that consist of five feet of bare stem and a foot of green on top. I want to cut back to about 3 feet and see what will happen. Others on the committee are horrified. Help?

  2. beatricetuthill 10/03/2023

    @ territorial io : I wonder what happens if you cut the top off a conifer? Because large evergreen trees do not respond well to topping, I really want to remove the upper main stem through topping

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