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

    1. Marge Says:

      Thanks for the info and for continuing to keep tabs on questions.

    2. Roger Says:

      You’re so welcome. It’s always a pleasure helping folks with their landscapes.

    3. Vincent Cronin Says:

      Great article. My horizontal junipers are probably in need of selective pruning this year. I was concerned when I noticed an area browning out on one plant. It started on the tip of a branch but seems to moving back toward the center of the plant now. It looked like the branch was over sprayed with Round Up but I know that’s not likely. We have a mole / vole problem could they cause that type of damage? Any suggestions would be appreciated.

    4. Roger Says:

      It’s difficult to diagnose plant problems without being on-site. There are so many variables involving the plant and the environment it’s in.

      If this browning is with one plant among others — and it’s one branch on that plant — I don’t think it’s pest or disease. I would prune that branch out by following it to a “juncture” where it connects with another (healthy) branch or stem. Then, watch the plant to see if browning or discoloring starts elsewhere.

      The browning is not likely a reaction to a chemical like Roundup. The damage would be more patchy on the plant within an area the spray landed on — again, not isolated to a singular branch.

      The branch could be physically damaged, i.e. broken or chewed at the base by “something,” which would cause just that branch to brown.

      And the possibilities just go on from there. Sorry I can’t be more sure.

    5. Joan Says:

      I just had a “landscaper” prune my 2 jumipers. He sheared then into unrecognizable shapes. I will need to replace them. Very sad.

    6. Roger Says:

      You’re not alone. These trimming errors happen all the time. It’s very difficult to find knowledgeable, experienced pruning people. It’s a dying art.

      Without seeing the plant(s), is it possible to simply let the plant(s) grow out over the next season or two and then start pruning them properly?

    7. Suzanne Stewart Says:

      I have been selectively pruning three low spreading junipers but the branches towards the base are dying out or brown. Plants are thriving – is this characteristic?

    8. Roger Says:

      It’s difficult to give an opinion on plant health without seeing the plant and the environment it’s in.

      If you’ve been pruning properly over the years, as you mentioned, and now they’re browning out towards the bottom — this does not sound normal to me.

      I wish I could be more helpful, but w/o seeing the plants and their environment there are just too many potential reasons for this lower browning to list.

    9. Alexis Says:

      I have a juniper that is browning at the tips as well lower towards the stems,how do
      I trim them,do I trim them to the stem of just the dead leaves?

    10. Roger Says:

      If the juniper is browning at the tips there is something wrong — and the cause could be one or a combination of things. You could take a sample to a garden center or nursery in your area where there’s “knowledgeable” staff. Sometimes there is a person on staff that is educated on plant health care.

    11. Donna Says:

      Juniper is browning and has very large woody runners. Can the large woody runners be cut out they are unsightly. Also there is a grass growing in one end of the juniper we have alot around a pool If I try to kill the grass then the juniper will also be killed, should I just strip all the juniper away and then kill grass? Will it regrow
      and spread again. I have tried to keep grass pulled but it grows faster than I can pull it.

    12. Roger Says:

      Without seeing the juniper it’s hard to comment on their condition, but at the very least it sounds as though they’ve reached a point where they should just be removed (and replaced).

      Grass growth within plants and planting beds can be a nuisance. And you’re right, how do you treat for the the grass and not hurt the plants?! I don’t follow current chemical use (i.e. herbicides and insecticides), so perhaps there’s a recently developed herbicide that would selectively kill the grass and not harm the plant.

      Assuming there isn’t a “selective” herbicide like this, I’d remove the juniper and then spray any of the existing grasses and weeds with a “non-select” herbicide like Roundup. After 10 days or so the grasses and weeds should be dead. Now you can go ahead and plant new. Of course there’s no guarantee these rogue grasses won’t return at some point. You can annually apply a granular weed preventer (e.g. Preen), but I don’t believe that prevents “grass-type” weeds. And, of course, maintaining a good layer of mulch (i.e. 2-3″) in the planting beds helps a great deal.

    13. Fritz Says:

      In fall, you should you allow the leaves from trees to stay in the beds and especially around the junipers? Or should you blow out all the leaves?

    14. Roger Says:

      If you have a naturalized garden where leaves are OK to look at, then let them remain in the beds. As you probably know they’re excellent to supply organic matter and nutrients as they decompose.

    15. Marcia Says:

      I have a couple of blue star junipers for 4 years and never pruned them. They’re in small beds which they are attempting to take over and I am planning to prune them back. I’m in Northern Virginia and would like to know when is the best time (season) to prune them? Also, is it ok to cut back half of the plant in one go, or will that send it into shock? They are very healthy now, but I don’t want to compromise their health by trimming them back too much in one go, or at the wrong time.

    16. Roger Says:

      I would prune in the spring so that the new season’s growth will happen soon after.

      I can not remember ever trimming a blue star juniper, other than to remove brown or damaged branches. Be careful not to prune back too hard. I would just shorten the terminal ends of branches a bit.

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