How To Prune Upright Junipers

How-To's · Written by Roger

82 Comments

There are a number of varieties of upright juniper. Some of the more common ones are: Torialosa, Robusta, Blue Point, Moonglow, Pathfinder, Skyrocket and Wichita Blue.

This category of juniper fills a useful design niche in the landscape. Most stay relatively narrow, yet grow tall. Sometimes referred to as columnar or fastigiate.

Typically they are very hardy, drought tolerant, and adaptable to a variety of conditions.

Often, however, upright juniper are not pruned, but allowed to “go-it on their own”.  This usually causes an open, lanky growth habit.  As a result they have a less than stellar reputation.

Once you understand the characteristics of upright junipers and how to care for them, they’ll become a useful plant in your landscapes.

A Common Characteristic Not Talked About But One You Need To Know

Qualities that make most upright junipers useful in landscape design are:

  • their narrow form
  • their hardiness
  • their unique texture

There’s another characteristic that’s common to most, and that’s how they grow.  All their growth energy goes to the terminal ends of the main branches. If not “selectively pruned” regularly these branches keep getting longer and heavier.  This causes each branch to stay thin with minimal side growth and eventually pull away from the center of the plant.

upright juniper prunedLost Cause?… Not Necessarily

In the picture above is an upright juniper we planted a few years back.  This was a tough spot to select a plant. The space was narrow, but height was needed.  The exposure was full sun so the heat got intense in the summer.

This upright juniper (sorry, I don’t remember the exact variety) fit the bill.

But look what happened.  The maintenance company  either overlooked the pruning, or didn’t know how.

So is this plant now a lost cause? Not at this point. You can still save the plant and reverse its decline by:

  • “Selectively” pruning back the terminal end of each branch to reduce its length and weight.
  • Using Arbor Tie to support the sagging branches by guying them to the center stem of the plant.

upright juniper branch tiedPruning the terminal end of each branch removes the apical bud and encourages lateral or side buds to grow.  This naturally makes the plant grow fuller and stronger.

The Arbor Tie lets you pull the branch back to its correct position and hold it there.  These ties should be temporary until the branches get stronger and hold their position on their own.  This might take 2 or 3 years.

Even though the Arbor Tie is temporary you must make sure there is room for growth and movement.  This PDF on Arbor Tie shows some uses and applications, but you can improvise too.  This is great stuff and I keep a roll in my truck for all kinds of situations.

The picture below shows the upright juniper after being pruned and “arbor-tied”.  Notice how selective pruning maintains the natural character of the plant.

If you use a calendar program like in Microsoft Outlook, or some other scheduling system, set a date to check the arbor ties (e.g. once/year). Don’t forget about them.  They must be monitored and eventually removed.

upright juniper pruned properlyThe Benefits of Rescuing Plants Poorly Maintained

You have to use your judgement here because sometimes it just doesn’t pay to put in the time and effort. In this particular case the task took me 20 minutes; with a good outcome – well worth it. Once again you have to compare the cost of repair (and the expected results) with replacing the plant.

Also, we all like to see a plant saved if possible and there can be real value there for the ecologically-minded homeowner.  Many customers will really appreciate the effort and professionalism.

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    82 Responses to “How To Prune Upright Junipers”

    1. Andrea Says:

      I have a Blue Arrow Juniper, about 5 feet, planted almost one year ago in Seattle. It was well watered until winter, and is now watered regularly in summer. We had an unusually dry sprung, however, when it was watered only irregularly. A couple months ago, I noticed the two leads at the top were brown (about 3-4 inches). The rest of the tree seems healthy and now the new growth seems uniform over the tree. No sign of pests. Should I simply cut out the brown leaders? (In general I get worried any time the leaders on a tree or plant look compromised.)
      Thanks for your help.

    2. Roger Says:

      Andrea,
      Hard to say why the tops died back like that. Let’s assume it’s because the plant was new and not established, and simply more vulnerable to stress (e.g. heat, drought, transplant shock, etc.). And die-back like that can manifest itself well after “the event/circumstance” that caused it.

      Evidently it’s stabilized so that it’s pushing new growth uniformly (except for the top). So yes, I would prune out the dead leads down to live growth. The plant should eventually assume new, dominant lead growth.

    3. cheryl Says:

      I have planted 20 15 gal blue arrow junipers approximately 4′-5′ high in hopes of making a hedge with them. They have been in the ground about 45 days and seem to be doing quite well. I am not sure if I should start shaping them. They have many long limbs and some dead due to transplanting. They have a lot of new growth. I would like to send a photo but not sure on this website if I can? I live in San Jose Ca. and the weather right now is hot and dry. I have the trees on a drip system 3 days a week 15 min. a day.

    4. Roger Says:

      Cheryl,
      I usually visit new plantings 2-4 weeks after installation to prune out any damaged branches from handling.

      It would be smart to start tip-pruning the longer growing branches. It will make for a much stronger plant, and help prevent this upright juniper from “opening-up” from too long and too heavy branching.

      It’s hard to judge the amount of water with the schedule you mentioned. Drip is a great way to irrigate. These are very drought tolerant plants, so after they’re established (6 mons. – 1 year perhaps) you can reduce watering. In the meantime, check the soil moisture by pushing a thin metal rod or long screwdriver down into the soil. The rod should be slightly moist — not wet.

      You can send a picture with email if you’d like. roger@landscapeadvisor.com

    5. Theresa Says:

      Will a spartan juniper that has been trimmed in to spherical vteired ball shapes grow back to its symmetrical pyramid type shape?

    6. Roger Says:

      Theresa,
      I would imagine it eventually would.

      Of course some of the lateral branches are missing (to create the tiers). But perhaps over time you’ll get some budding on that portion of the stem. And if not, the growth from the areas where there is foliage will eventually fill in the voids.

      There are times when I’ve had to restore a topiary that was not maintained — it was reverting back to its natural form. You just have to let yours “do its thing”. :-)

    7. Shelley Says:

      Hello. I wrote a question this morning but I don’t see it posted. We bought (and replaced once) 12 junnipers (Blue something ?moon?) 2 years ago. They were for privacy. Our soil is very rocky and full of clay here in Ft Collins, Co. Plus this last winter was rough for s lot of trees. Despite a drip system I don ‘t think they got enough water. They have struggled and several tops are dead. The tree nursery here where we bought them ftom recommended I try something called Boomerang, and the trees are showing new growth, plus I am manually watering them and checking on them regularly. My question is , should I prune the tops of the dead ones (maybe 10-12 in). I know it may ruin the appearance, but I hate to totally get rid of trees that are beginning to bounce back (slowly). I hope you receive my question this time (via my phone). Thanks so much!

    8. Roger Says:

      Shelly,
      I’d have to see the plants to give a more definite answer, but as you describe the situation I would go ahead and prune back the tops to where live stem, branch or foliage is present.

      Removing 10-12″ of the top is essentially taking out the dominant leader of the plant. However, over time the plant should instinctively assume new dominant growth and eventually get taller.

      Also, I would keep up your regimen of Boomerang (as per directions on product) and keep soil moist (not wet).

    9. Shelley Says:

      Roger , thank you so much for your advice. I understand that you would need to see the trees to really understand what might be going on. I wasn’t sure if I would kill the trees if I pruned the dominant leaders (as you called it). This has been extremely helpful and I will recommend you to anyone I know who has questions. You were more helpful than the nursery. I will continue the Boomerang per their instructions and keep the trees moist (not wet), but better than rock hard like when I was depending on the drip system (I assumed it was working, so I didn’t check very often). Thanks again very much , and for your quick response! Shelley

    10. Eleanor Says:

      Roger, I have 8 Blue Point Junipers — all 16 years old and on a drip system. Several have damage on one side due to extreme hot winds, but look OK otherwise. How can I remove all the brown needles to improve the appearance? This looks like a major undertaking to me.

      The other trees all have deer damage around the top third of each tree. Can I just remove all of the sparse growth and brown needles back to the trunk (like a Bonsai pruning) and then shape above and below this point, or will that further damage the trees? Thank you for whatever help you can provide.

    11. Roger Says:

      Eleanor,
      I don’t think there’s a practical way to remove all the brown needles, but hopefully new growth (next season) will eventually disguise it. Any dead stems and branches should eventually be cut back to where growth and/or living buds are showing. So you may have to wait until next season to clearly distinguish this.

      I’d handle the deer damaged growth the same way, i.e. prune it back to where new buds or growth shows and let it recover. And prune the remaining plant as you see fit. I guess your doing something about the deer problem.

    12. Eleanor Says:

      Roger, thank you. I had better sharpen my pruning shears because there’s a lot of work ahead of me. I did start this process before hearing from you and I think I horrified my neighbors! Hopefully, things will look better next year. My TruGreen Tree and Shrub Service representative came today for a scheduled treatment. I told him I may have murdered my junipers, but he assured me they would be fine. Whew.

    13. John Says:

      Hi Roger-

      I need some help with my Skyrockets. This past winter (North East Region) My skyrockets became weighted by the heavy snow fall. New blue tips grew, but most of the interior to the plant is brown. It has grown from a 5 foot plant to now an 8 foot plant. I want to trim it back to perhaps 6 feet. They are located on either side of my home entrance. What can I do to trim them back and get rid of the browning if I do trim them back.

      Thank You
      John

    14. Roger Says:

      John,
      The browning on the interior is not unusual as the plant grows. Are you shearing the plant or selectively pruning individual branches? Shearing the plant causes dense growth at the ends (exterior), and that prevents light from getting to the interior. This, in turn, supports the browning of the interior.

      If you prune selectively and make deliberate pruning cuts to allow light to enter into the interior of the plant, that will help.

      I know you want to make the plant smaller, but use your judgement and don’t prune back past blue, healthy growth.

      Skyrockets, like several other upright junipers, can get long-branched and floppy if not selectively pruned every year. This annual pruning will help keep them more stout and strong. This helps the plant resist damage from snow & ice. You could also tie (with cord or Arbor-Tie) or wrap the plant (with burlap) for the winter to prevent winter damage.

    15. Cathy Says:

      We have a Skyrocket Juniper that got planted in the wrong place and is now up to the eaves of the house. I don’t want to take it out completely unless there is a safe and convenient way for me to personally transplant it. Otherwise, I am planning to prune it and takr the top half off so that it won’t compete with 2 nearby deciduous trees/shrub. Also, can the top be trimmed back and placed in a fertilized, wet hole to griw on it’s own? Thanks!

    16. Roger Says:

      Cathy,
      The way you describe the tree it’s probably too big for you to transplant. A “capable” landscape contractor could do that for you, but with plants like this often the cost of moving exceeds the value of the plant.

      If you cut “the top half off” the plant will be disfigured and probably look odd. And no, you can not root a cut piece like that. I’m not well versed on plant propagation and rooting cuttings, but it may be possible to take a smaller cutting and root that. But that’s something you’d have to research and there are many conditions to consider.

    17. Edward Says:

      Roger,

      I have a row of Spartan Junipers that have grown from 7-8 feet a couple years back to nearly 12-14 feet now. They seem to be doing fine ever since the delivery from the nursery. The issue is browning of the interior and backside which can be expected from lack of light, but the browning / dying of interior branches seems to be somewhat sporadic and intense. Some areas seem to show no sign of needle dropping, while other specific branches are completely dried out and dead. There have been no obvious signs of pests or fungus, but I am dreading cercospora (even though Spartans are listed as resistant). In addition, the one juniper with the most problems also seems to be turning an off “pale” color also near the bottom 1/4 of the tree. This is concerning as we are entering the winter season with little to no new growth to push out. Hopefully you can suggest a possible remedy especially for the one tree. I have tried to feed it a little to give a boost, but again I know it’s the wrong season. I am in Dallas… Very rainy this year, trying not to overwater, but cannot let go dry. Thank you in advance for any help.

    18. Roger Says:

      Edward,
      Spartan Juniper and other similar varieties will have browning in the interior as they get bigger (and older). However, some of the conditions you describe sound atypical — such as, “while other specific branches are completely dried out and dead”. And the one with the “pale color near the bottom”.

      In situations like this I’ll ask a plant health care specialist to check the plants out. And more often when I feel a proper diagnosis should come from a laboratory (like in your situation) I’ll send representative branches down to Rutgers University. Rutgers serves as the agricultural extension for New Jersey.

      I’d recommend you do the same. Every state has their agricultural extension. I did some research and I believe this would be yours: Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.

      Hope this helps.

    19. Jason Says:

      Hi,

      I have 8 skyrocket Junipers in my yard, the one closest to the footpath has died in it’s first year, I’ve been having trouble sourcing the same oes ad finally my nursery was able to get me one but nothing as small as what I have, this current one is about 5 ft and the existing ones are around 3ft now. Any suggestions on how to balance the height out? I know I can’t cut the top without destroying it’s ability to grow vertically.

      Also is it same to trim the top then the reach an ideal 10ft height to keep them from becoming too tall?

      FYI, I also Have some Swayne’s Gold planted along side them alternating colours.

    20. Roger Says:

      Jason,
      To even the heights between the 3′ and 5′ plants you’ll have to let the 3 footers catch up to the 5′. And this means you’ll need to “control” the growth of the 5′ plant by selective pruning (not shearing).

      It’s OK to prune back the top leader stem(s) 1/3 to 1/2. This will help slow the size growth while the others (3 footers) catch up. You should also be selectively pruning back side growth. This will cause all the branches and general “framework” of the plant to strengthen (become thicker). This will not only strengthen the plant, but also help control the size. Since you want to keep the plants at 10′, begin this pruning from the beginning. It will be a challenge to ultimately keep them at 10′, but starting early will slow them down and build that strong framework.

    21. Gail Says:

      Hi Roger,
      I am not sure if this is the right place to ask this question.
      We are in the middle of planting two blue point junipers to extend from the side of the house spaced four feet apart. The goal is to create a small privacy hedge of about 8 feet in a straight line coming from the house. I wanted to leave 3 feet distance between the house and the first tree because I’m concerned about causing foundation issues down the road. However, we found out that there is a pipe and a wire right where we want to plant. Two feet would avoid the wire and pvc pipe but is it too close to the house? If it is, I may need to pick a completely different plant. Thanks so much for your help!!!

    22. Roger Says:

      Gail,
      You should anticipate the ‘Blue Point’ juniper will get (at a minimum) 6′ wide. Selective pruning will help slow the mature width, but eventually it will achieve that width.

      When we talk about “plant spacing,” it’s always in terms of relative to center-of-plant. So, since the ‘Blue Point’ aspires to get at least 6′ wide, if the center of the plant is 3′ from the house it will eventually touch the house. My initial feeling is that’s too close. You always want to have some room between the plant and the house (at maturity).

      I don’t think the ‘Blue Point’ poses much of a threat to the foundation, but I would think about the root development with regard to the pipe & wire you mentioned. Do you know what the pipe & wire are for? Cable TV, electric, drainage, gas, etc.?

      Could you install a decorative screening panel for privacy, and then grow a climbing plant on it? Or plant one ‘Blue Point in front of the panel?

    23. Gail Kremer Says:

      Thanks Roger!

      I emailed some pictures to you. We can move the blue points to each corner of the porch to create a beautiful accent. It still doesn’t solve the side of the house privcay (visual and sound) issue. My husband thinks the pipe and the wire are both for the automatic sprinkler system installed by a previous owner. We had the utilities come out and they did not mark that area.

      I seriously considered a trellis but I realized (trying to solve this for 2 years now) the following –

      We need 8-10 feet of a visual barrier and 3-4 feet sound barrier. We need to leave the walkway open for the lawnmower. We love our neighbors but they love to party with loud music til the middle of the night.

      The big box store said to space blue points 4 feet apart but I think you’re right – that close to the house might create a problem down the road.

      Considering – larger gallon size of dwarf burford holly (4 feet wide and 8 feet tall?)

      Japanese Steeds Holly – would have to cross my fingers that it would get to 8 feet tall

      Two layers of sky pencil holly (one layer along the fence and one where I was planning on planting the junipers) – see pictures I sent

      or:
      Two boxwood fastigates extending from the house. We love the dark green, glossy look.

      The problem is that I’m not a landscape expert so I feel like I’m taking a risk putting money toward something that might or might not work.

      Yaupon holly – not as pretty as the others and poisonous… but might be the most functional

      Thank you so much for your help!!! You’re the best online helper!!!

    24. Gail Kremer Says:

      Also, considering dwarf burford holly – I can purchase them in 5 gallons. 6-10 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide.

      Any thoughts on planting them in the area I mentioned?

    25. Roger Says:

      Gail,
      I did get the pictures you sent, and that helps.

      The pipe and wire could be irrigation. It’s so smart you had the utility companies come out. But of course the utility companies are basically marking out only their feeds from the street to your home. Make sure neither the pipe or wire gets damaged. A slight nick in the wire (with a tool) could cause problems.

      I like the way you’ve analyzed the situation in terms of plant choice. You’ve thought of the site conditions and what the plant should do in the future. Well done! :-)

      You’re on the right track with considering plants that naturally grow taller than wide. The Boxwood ‘Fasitigiata’ would be your best choice. Unfortunately it probably won’t be the least expensive.

      Boxwood ‘Fastigiata’ is hardy and reliable. It’s mature size should be ideal for what you’re trying to accomplish. The branching and foliage is dense for screening and will help (somewhat) with sound control.

    26. Bill Buck Says:

      Thanks for your advice, Roger. I have 3 questions related to our 6′ skyrockets planted this summer along our fence here in Bend, OR. We hope they become a privacy screen.

      1–We planted them 4′ apart. Should we plant another in the middle of each spacing so they’re 2′ apart?

      2–We have not pruned them yet and the bottom branches are sagging from recent snow, while the tops are skinny and pointed. How can we prune to make the tops more full?

      3–What is the best time of year to prune? Thanks in advance, Bill

    27. Roger Says:

      Bill,
      In terms of spacing, my inclination is to not plant in between the existing Skyrockets. I don’t typically use Skyrockets in my plantings, but the ones I’ve seen here in the northeast are typically 3’+ in width. I know in Oregon plants generally grow very well to reach maximum size potential. If they were 2′ (center-to-center) spacing, I could see them eventually crowding one another (to their detriment). With patience and good care I think they’ll develop beautifully for you at 4′ center-to-center spacing.

      Hopefully they’re not too close to the fence. If the fence is of a solid style construction where little light and air gets, its often the case where the backs of the plants become bare. If you need to move the plants to get further away from the fence, wait until spring. Since they’ve only been in since summer, they’ll move quite easily & safely. I’m thinking the center of each plant should be 3′ from the fence.

      Pruning is smart with Skyrockets or they will get “branch-heavy” and start to sag — even without snow on them. If possible I’d wait until late winter to prune them. Since they’re dormant through the winter, you could gently tie them to support the foliage during snowfalls. Simply take a cord/string and gently wrap the plant like a barber’s pole. Remove the cord after the danger of snow has passed.

      To encourage full(er) growth towards the top, just prune the very tips of the upper branches and stems. Even the terminal leader(s) should be tip-pruned lightly. By pruning the tips you remove the apical buds (at the ends). This causes more growth at the lateral buds (side buds) — giving a fuller plant. Again, I’d do this pruning in late winter.

    28. Dave Says:

      Roger,

      My moon glow junipers are about 8 years old and I notice significant thinning around the bottoms of the trees now. The needles seem to have dried up and fallen off. I use evergreen tree fertilizer spikes twice a year in the spring and fall and they’ve been pretty healthy up to now. Any suggestions on what to do to encourage more needle growth around the bottom of the trees?

      thanks in advance, Dave

    29. Roger Says:

      Dave,
      It’s hard to comment as to the cause of the needle drop without being on-site and looking at all the conditions. If all the juniper are doing the same thing it’s a universal cause. It could even be a characteristic of that plant over time, i.e. losing foliage towards the base. There are a number of plant types that do this. Unfortunately I’m not experienced with Moon Glow to know its long term behavior.

      Since you’ve had them for a while, is there anything different that has occurred in the past year or so — whether it be irrigation, lawn applications, different mulch, etc.?

      BTW, you could reduce your fertilizing to once per year (spring).

      Dave, the possibilities are many — again, especially without seeing them on the particular site.

      Keep an eye on them to see if the needle drop progresses higher up the plant. And look to see if anything similar is happening in the upper part of the plants. This would indicate something uncharacteristic, and something that needs attention.

      Is there a plant nursery, garden center or plant expert in the area you can contact? Back in my garden center days some customers would be samples in of their ailing plants.

      Now, when I come across plant problems I’m not familiar with I send a sample down to Rutgers University. They are the NJ university associated with the NJ Cooperative Extension Service.

      Every county in every state has a Cooperative Extension Services office. Through your respective office you’ll be able to get information on sending a sample of your junipers to your state’s affiliated university. Here’s a link to the webpage I found for Cooperative Extension Offices.

      Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful.

    30. Dave Says:

      Thanks for your insight and the link to the Cooperative Extension Office, Roger. I’ll visit the nursery the trees came from and talk to the good folks there too. All the best, Dave

    31. MaryBeth Says:

      I am so glad I found your site and the info it holds about these junipers. I planted a Skyrocket a few years ago in a small bed at the back of my house, a southwest corner, next to some stone steps and a door where it looks perfect :-) It has done surprisingly well and has “skyrocketed” to the roof line. Though I have seen pruning done to control topiary styles of similar species, it never occurred to me that I should prune my own. I’ve been concerned over the past couple of winters when snowfall caused its branches to splay, some in the way when with the door… so I would gently knock off the snow and tie them up a bit. We had a heavy snowfall in the early spring this year (typical northern Ohio!) and I literally gasped to see my Rocket laying almost horizontal across the drive from the weight of the snow. :-( Thank God it hasn’t uprooted.. I staked it back upright that day and it is doing just fine. I realize now that it definitely needs “a haircut”, and hopefully this will help it manage through future winters. “Late winter” is mentioned as the ideal pruning time in most posts here.. it is May 1st as I write this… Is there any reason I could not/should not do the pruning now? Thank you in advance for your advice!

    32. Roger Says:

      MaryBeth,
      You go right ahead and prune that juniper now. It’s most important you begin pruning back each lengthy stem and branch. This will do exactly what you’re thinking — begin to make the framework of the plant stronger.

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