How To Prune Low, Spreading Junipers

How-To's, Landscape Care · Written by Roger


juniper.parsoni1This group of “low junipers” is often either not pruned or pruned incorrectly.  Not pruning can result in run-away growth where these junipers outgrow their space.  Incorrect pruning can alter the plant’s natural growth habit and cause it’s health to decline.

juniper.parsoni_prune1How Do They Naturally Grow?

Right?…This is the first thing to ask yourself before pruning.  The cuts you make should support the natural growth habit and shape of the plant.

Low, spreading junipers naturally want to grow horizontally and get much wider than tall.  Their branches shoot out; instinctively wanting to dominate and get longer (this is known as apical dominance…you don’t really have to know this).    In a wide open space where you’re looking for maximum coverage, this growth habit is ideal.  In these circumstances you can allow the plant “to do its thing”.

Often, however, low junipers are used in limited spaces.   If left unchecked, they’ll out-grow that space and, well…the solutions to that are not pretty.

juniper.parsoni_prune2Selectively Prune

Selective pruning, as you probably know, is time consuming.  As the name implies you are selectively choosing where on the plant to make each cut.

There is no power equipment that significantly automates this process.  There are some people that “shear” these plants with power shears.  That’s incorrect and a disaster as it turns them into manicured shapes and promotes dense growth only on the ends of the branches.

In the second picture above I’m choosing branch ends that are growing noticeably faster and longer.  I then move down the branch to a point within the secondary, slower growth – and make the cut.  This is done throughout the plant.  Try to work from one area out and not jump around randomly.  Always be conscious of the plant’s natural shape. Step back occasionally to check  your work and adjust your cuts if necessary.

The first picture above shows a newly planted Juniper ‘Parsoni’.  The shape of this new, low, spreading juniper is misleading.  Notice how the side growth is somewhat stunted as compared to the top growth.  This is because this plant is coming from a nursery where it had been stored in close groups – probably almost touching one another.

The last picture is a low, spreading juniper that was just “selectively” pruned. (Click on it for a bigger image.)  Most of the long ends have been pruned back, and the natural shape preserved.

Your low, spreading juniper will have a long, beautiful life if you prune them “selectively”.  Of course,  remember how equally important spacing them correctly is when planting.

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    24 Responses to “How To Prune Low, Spreading Junipers”

    1. Linda Wagner Says:

      The inside of my spreading junipers is all brown and dead looking, and only the ends of the branches, which show, are green. Should I be pruning off the dead stuff? Is it an invitation to bugs and/or fungus?


    2. Roger Says:

      Hi Linda,
      Sometimes when juniper are sheared rather than selectively pruned, the growth becomes so dense and concentrated at the ends of the branches that the interior of the plant browns. And, of course, very old and mature plants will get this way too – they become large and the interior is just naturally shaded.

      You could clean out (prune) some of that interior brown and “twiggy” branching – it would make for a healthier environment in the sense that more air circulation and perhaps some additional light could get in there.

      If you see browning or other discoloration on the exterior growth that could mean an insect or disease problem. Juniper blight (a disease) can be found on certain types of juniper, especially if they are under regular irrigation and are kept too wet. Even a wet, rainy season could cause a blight to take hold. If you see this happening on the exterior growth, perhaps you could bring a sample piece to your local garden center, or send a sample to your county agricultural extension service.

    3. Doug Says:

      My junipers have grown to high. 4 feet. I understand what you have asked above but if I cut back 1 to 2 feet( 2 feet preferred) all green will be gone. I live in north Florida. Today is sunny and 75 degrees. Could have 1-3 more frosts this winter. By march 1 no frosts. I have junipers like in your picture. Can I cut back 2 feet now and expect new growth in spring?

    4. Roger Says:

      Hi Doug,
      If your juniper are 4′ high they would be different from the type I’m talking about in this article. But it doesn’t matter regarding your situation because the same principle applies to most junipers where your considering dramatic cuts (like you’re planning).

      If you cut below where there is existing foliage it’s unlikely the bare stem will rejuvenate and produce new foliage. Therefore, your most extreme cut should always leave some juniper foliage.

      I’m guessing this will not lower the juniper enough for your situation. If that’s the case you might just consider removing them and replacing with a better plant selection, i.e. one that will not mature beyond the height and width you need.

      In the article I’m referring to “low junipers”. This category typically does not exceed 2′ in height. Varieties such as Parsoni, San Jose, Blue Star, etc. fall into this category. Someone at a local garden center that’s knowledgeable could show you their selections that meet the “mature” size requirements you’re looking for. Alternatively you could shop anywhere (even Home Depot, Lowes), take note of the varieties they have and then look them up on the internet for accurate descriptions before purchasing.

    5. Kiran Says:

      We moved into house where there are 2 very old junipers that have beautiful, thick lower trunks, but the greenery has been sheared to look like puff balls. Would love to send you a photo because we are desperate to get these back to a natural shape and growth habit. Not sure how to accomplish this. Any suggestions would be apprecieated!


    6. Roger Says:

      If you could send me a picture that would be helpful. Do you know how to send a digital picture by email? You can send it to

      I’d be interested to see how developed this juniper is as a topiary. I also have several other questions that a picture would answer for me (e.g. type & variety of juniper, size, etc.)

    7. Carol Ann Travis Says:

      what is the name of the juniper whose picture headlines this article?

    8. Roger Says:

      Carol Ann,
      The juniper pictured at the top of the article is Juniperus davurica ‘Parsoni’. I use this particular variety a lot.

      Make sure to give it room to grow — It can get 6 to 8′ wide. The mature height is around 24″.

    9. Patrick Says:

      Roger, help… my horizontal junipers are all brown from tip to about 12 inches into the plant. I have noticed neighbors also have this problem but not all junipers.. We had a very hard winter this year in Minnesota. Could this be “winter burn”? and what should I do about the brown sections. Thanks

    10. Roger Says:

      It could possibly be winter damage, but could also be insect or disease damage. Do you remember the juniper looking this way in the fall?

      The only way to be sure, and the way that I would approach this, would be to send a sample to your Minnesota Agricultural Extension Service.

      I use the one here in NJ all the time to get accurate diagnoses. Otherwise you don’t know for sure what the condition is and how to treat it (if treatment is an option).

    11. Donna Says:

      I think I have 4 of the San Jose variety in my yard. They are around 40 years old, about thigh high and had branches that looked like tentacles spreading out. Someone who was helping with yard work cut the tentacles off. Now I see lots of brown underneath. I think it may be only the tips that are green. I am in California and we are having a drought this year so they also haven’t been watered much. Our mobile home park manager is telling me I need to trim all the underneath brown off so they will sit above the ground and look better. I am afraid this will kill them if the previous cut didn’t begin the job. Do you think my plants are goners or is there still hope?

    12. Roger Says:

      It’s hard to give an accurate recommendation on this w/o seeing them. But junipers like this can live on forever regardless of what people do to them.

      I have seen older shrubs elevated where the lower, half-dead branching is removed. And it can “sometimes” create an interesting look. Removing the lower branching could help direct energy into the upper plant that was pruned back – this could actually help the upper plant recover.

    13. Don Grove Says:

      Hi Roger
      We have steep slope of red clay in East Tennessee. This is fresh dirt from excavation for the foundation of our house. We want to hold the bank together. Does the Parsoni Juniper develop a deep and strong root system? Could we plant them about 3′ apart to get coverage as soon as possible and then just prune to keep them in line as they spread? Do we need to amend the red clay for these Parsoni or similar Juniper ground cover to thrive? Thanks for your help. Regards, Don and Barbara

      Will send a picture to

    14. Roger Says:

      Parsoni Juniper is listed as a “clay-tolerant” plant. Juniper ‘Gold Star’ and Juniper ‘Old Gold’ are 2 others you might consider.

      These junipers will spread and cover the slope, but their root system is more fibrous and shallow – and that’s fine for general cover on not too steep, stable slopes. But if your slope is fairly steep and unstable, you might consider integrating with the juniper some more deeply rooted plants. For example: Spreading Yew (Taxus densiformis), Viburnum (many varieties to choose from), even forsythia. You could even incorporate some (clay tolerant) flowering trees, such as: Crabapple (many varieties to choose from) and Japanese Stewartia.

      Intersperse these more deeply rooted plants among the junipers so their roots penetrate deeper and ensure the slope is better stabilized throughout.

    15. colleen Says:

      We just purchased a home that was vacant for 3 years There is beautiful juniper groundcover around the perimeter of an inground pool that is VERY overgrown I love the look but it definitely needs to be cut back a lot When I selectively prune, I end up with alot of brown branches. Is it possible that these branches could bloom in the spring or is it more likely that these plants are too far gone. They look awful right now but I would hate to pull them all put of there is hope. Thoughts?

    16. Roger Says:

      Junipers are conifers and will not likely re-bud from older wood. Any cuts you make where you hope to encourage new growth should be made at points where there is foliage and/or actively growing stems.

    17. Sarah Osborne Says:

      We have several small prostrate junipers around our condo that have been severely damaged by dog urine. I have removed them from the beds and am hoping to revitalize them in their new (dog-free) home. Should I remove the damaged branches? The brown areas are in the center of the plants – the ends of the branches are healthier.

      This are young plants, less than 3 years old. Is it worthwhile to just cut them back completely? From my reading, it sounds like this strategy does not work with junipers.

      Any advice you can give would be appreciated.

    18. Roger Says:

      I would let the juniper recover pretty much as they are. You could just cut back the tips of each branch a bit (1 inch perhaps). This will send a message to the plant to push new growth from the sides of the existing branches, rather than at the ends.

    19. Kate Says:

      I have inherited several large junipers that have taken over the sidewalks (probably half the sidewalk is blocked by the juniper). I need to clear the sidewalk but don’t want to do lasting damage to the junipers. It is late August in Colorado. Can I still trim them back or do I have to wait until Spring?

    20. Roger Says:

      You can trim them back now (late August).

      It sounds like you’ll need to make some fairly aggressive cuts to clear the walkway. And you’ll probably want to go a bit further so next year’s growth is not back onto the walk.

      Without seeing them it’s hard to give more guidance (and an opinion). If the cuts are so aggressive and deep into the old-wood of the plant, it may not rejuvenate and push new growth.

    21. Stephanie Says:

      As part of our autumn yard cleanup last weekend we pruned our cedars and junipers back a couple of inches to clear the sidewalks to make shovelling easier once the snow comes. Now doing some reading I realize I probably should have waited til spring to prune these plants – is there any point in wrapping with burlap to protect the plants through the winter or do I just have to wait and see how they do? We live in southern Alberta (just barely north of Montana) so it will get just below freezing in the next couple weeks and we expect a few weeks of -30 every winter.

    22. Gary Pieper Says:

      I have 8 blue star junipers on top of a stone retaining that have been neglected terribly over time and have a lot of dead grey branches in their interior and have been covered over with fall leaves. I have removed the leaves and other debris but the interior looks pretty bad. Is there anyway I can rejuvenate the interior growth of these plants and get them back to where they once did when they were planted. They are about 10+ years old and have not seemed to grow much over the years. What kind of care do you recommend?

    23. Roger Says:

      I’ve had mixed success with ‘Blue Star’ Juniper. And I haven’t figured out why that is. Usually one can, over time and use, figure out what a particular plant likes and dislikes. In seemingly similar conditions it will do well in one and not so good in another.

      If the environment they’re in is sunny, in well-drained soil and with little neighboring root competition, they should do well. Now, of course, there could be other issues at play here too. But in general, that’s the conditions ‘Blue Star’ likes.

      I would feed them in the spring (e.g. Espoma Hollytone). You could put some mulch under and around them for all the benefits mulch offers.

      With regard to the dead interior branches, you could prune some of that out for appearance sake. Hopefully it will be the new growth and rejuvenation that will disguise that.

    24. Roger Says:

      If the pruning you did stimulated new growth I would say to wrap and protect them. But I doubt that’s the case given the time of year and your “plant zone” (4?).

      Cedars and junipers are pretty tough, as you probably know. It sounds like you haven’t wrapped them in the past. My feeling is they’ll be fine. Of course if it will give you more assurance and peace of mind, then by all means wrap them.

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