How To Prune Upright Junipers

How-To's · Written by Roger

132 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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    132 Responses to “How To Prune Upright Junipers”

    1. Boris Says:

      Hello Roger,

      I am living in Texas, Houston area. I would like to plant several blue point junipers about 2-2.5 feet from a concrete walkway that has metal arming inside. It would be an optimal place for my home landscape design. Could the roots destroy the walkway? Is concrete a toxic substance for juniper roots at this close distance? My soil is heavy clay, but I planted 3 years ago many local wild junipers on my lot, mixing clay with organic and light clay that I have in some area of my lot. They are in very good condition. I am not sure about success with blue point junipers.

      Thank you.

    2. Irina Says:

      Hi Roger, with blue point juniper, I am not clear, I can only prune green branches? all branches become brown closer to the main trunk but there is green foliage. So, do not prune where the branch became brown?

    3. Roger Says:

      Boris,
      Junipers are very hardy by their nature — including adaptive to a variety of site conditions. The concrete walkway should not cause a toxic affect on the juniper.

      I think it’s smart you’re mixing in organic matter and light clay (from elsewhere on-site) to amend the soil. Although junipers can tolerate some wet soil conditions temporarily, they are not going to do well if the soil is constantly wet.

      With regard to the blue point juniper posing a threat to the concrete walk, it’s hard to say. You said the concrete walk has “arming” inside — I imagine that’s reinforcing of some sorts like re-bar. That’s certainly helpful. But I’m thinking that when the blue point juniper mature and get much larger they could affect the level of the walkway — especially if the walkway is not that wide.

      2-2.5′ is not a great distance from the walkway. And blue point juniper will want to ultimately grow over the walk. Pruning will help contain the plant, but eventually it will want to get wider. If you think long-term to when the plant is maybe 10′ high and 6-7′ wide, you can imagine a heavy, woody plant close to your walk.

      I certainly don’t want to discourage you because you could go ahead with your plans, prune diligently and keep an eye on their development. With that you’ll probably get a good number of years out of the plant(s) and spot any problems early — long before any real damage would occur.

    4. Roger Says:

      Irina,
      Exactly. It becomes very difficult for the plant to rejuvenate (push new growth) from branches that are bare and/or brown.

      Realize, however, that you may also be able to prune back heavy growth/branches well into the interior without plans for it to necessarily grow back. But rather look forward to adjacent branches (next to that now missing branch) to push lateral growth and fill in the space.

      With large, overgrown plants it often becomes a combination of the two pruning techniques, i.e. prune back aggressively the heavy wood (into the interior), and prune more lightly the adjacent growth.

      I hope this makes sense.

    5. Katrina Says:

      Hi Roger –

      I live in Roan Mountain, TN – elevation 3800 feet. We have an area beside our asphalt driveway that is roughly 16 feet wide at the widest point and 6’10” wide at its narrowest point. I would like to plant either skyrocket junipers or Taylor junipers – or a combination of both – in this space. Do you think they will fit in well there as well as next to the driveway? Thanks so much!

    6. Roger Says:

      Katrina,
      Both Skyrocket and Taylor junipers grow narrow (3-4′ wide) — so they both have plenty of room, even at your narrowest point (10’6″).

      In terms of “combining the two varieties,” I tend to use one variety in situations like this. Of course this can be a personal preference issue, so I’d make this one comment. If you do use both varieties I would still group several of the same variety before transitioning to the other. Alternating varieties (one after the other) can look peculiar and unnatural.

      Also, a subtle stagger to the arrangement can look nice too — again, a bit more natural. But these plants certainly lend themselves to a straight hedgerow as well. If I used both varieties in the arrangement, I’d group several of the same variety before switching to the other (variety), and I’d try to stagger the plants slightly.

    7. Kathleen Says:

      I have junipers (not sure which kind) along my 4 foot wide walk up to my front door. I was told they would always remain small, 1 foot high, but they have now grown wide – 4 ft, and tall – 6-8 ft. How can I trim them to 3 ft tall and 1 or 2 ft wide? Or do I just remove them? I can’t even see my front door…thank you.

    8. Roger Says:

      Kathleen,
      With the way you’re describing the existing juniper and the situation, I’d say removing them is your best bet. You’ll now have an open view to your front door and the opportunity to choose the right plant(s) to replace them.

      When you shop/search for plant replacements, do some research on any plants you’re considering. You’ll likely get advice from the “plant-person” at the nursery or garden center — or information from a tag on the plant. But it pays to hold on your purchase and do some research on your own (on those specific plants).

      The link I have above for “choose the right plant” is an article where I list two of my favorite plant reference books. But you could also use Google and do a search for each plant. Just make sure you visit several reputable sites so you get a general consensus on what the plant likes and how it will grow in the future.

    9. Jared Says:

      Hi Roger, Thanks for this helpful article. I’m trying to determine if skyrocket junipers can be shaped into a hedge? I have a client who’s asking. From what I’ve read junipers generally seem to do better with minimal pruning, but the client’s junipers are right along a sidewalk and he’s hoping they can be cut to a more rectangular shape. I didn’t know if this was possible over several seasons or if shearing will create too much external foliage and interior death? Thanks for your help.

    10. Sarah Says:

      I found out I am allergic to juniper and cedar’s when I touched them. My kitty loves going underneath them, and then when I pet her, my hands break out in blisters. I need to cut the bottom branches from underneath so they don’t lay on her coat. Will I damage them if I do this.

    11. Roger Says:

      Sarah,
      The things we do for our beloved pets. :-)

      As far as the health of the juniper goes, the plant(s) should be fine. The other consideration is how the plant will look.

      I’m assuming you’ll have someone do this pruning for you because of your allergic reaction. The person pruning should select each branch under consideration for removal and trace where it goes in and through the plant before they make any pruning cuts. This way there will be no surprises once the branch is cut and removed.

    12. Roger Says:

      Jared,
      You’re correct that shearing will create dense exterior foliage and branching while causing the interior to brown out.

      As you’re probably thinking, selective pruning (with hand pruners) would be the better way to keep their size in check. Frankly, in addition to being healthier for the upright juniper, I think they’ll look better too (hand pruned) — more like nature intended for them to look. ;-) And I think you could still get that “hedge-look” your client wants, but in a softer way — which could look really nice.

    13. Sarah Says:

      Thank you so much Roger. My husband is almost done, and they look great. So appreciate your advise. Yes, what we do for our fur babies. Love them to death.

    14. Don Says:

      Roger, we have two skyrocket junipers either side of front door steps. One had a lot of browning from a main trunk which I cut out. Remainder of tree is green (healthy?). Trees are about 9′ tall. Naturally we want a balanced look. Neither tree has been pruned in the past.
      Can you recommend a site for detailed pruning tips for both trees? Thx.

    15. Roger Says:

      Don,
      I’m not aware of a website that covers pruning skyrocket junipers.

      Skyrocket juniper falls in the category of upright juniper, so you can follow the general guidelines in this article.

      I’d like to give you more specific advice, but without being on-site it’s not possible to suggest particular pruning cuts. Proper “selective” pruning is following the fundamentals and making judgement calls on where (specifically) the cuts should be made. Every plant will have its own pruning needs.

      If you’re not feeling confident, perhaps you can find an experienced pruning person in your area — that may be the way to go. You could watch that person do this first pruning, ask questions, and be prepared to do the pruning in the future.

    16. Colleen Says:

      Hi Roger.
      I have a Juniper Spiny Greek next to my house. I wanted to trim the top back. But the backside of the Juniper is all dried up and dead. It doesn’t get any sunlight on this part of it. Also a lot of the bottom of the plant is the same. Would you suggest I take this out and put another bush in its place that can tolerate no sun. It does look as if it is dying. Thank you so much.

    17. Roger Says:

      Colleen,
      An upright juniper like ‘Spiny Greek’ — and most junipers for that matter — require full sun. Some can adapt to less than full sun, but that’s the exception.

      I would look for a replacement. Certainly the new plant should be shade tolerant, but keep in mind other factors too, such as hardiness (relating to your planting zone) and the mature size (height & width) of the new plant.

    18. Margy Says:

      I would like a definition of apical bud

    19. Roger Says:

      Margy,
      The apical bud is located at the tip (or end) of branches and stems. It contains a natural growth regulator that “tells” the side/lateral buds beneath it to not grow too much.

      If the apical bud remains at the tip of that branch and/or stem, then it is dominant — and this “apical dominance” makes the branch or stem grow its greatest at that tip or point.

      Allowing this apical dominance to prevail year after year can cause a plant to get leggy and weak as those unfettered branch ends just get longer.

      By tip-pruning and removing the apical buds the lateral/side buds are stimulated to grow. Overall this makes for a fuller, stronger plant.

      There is certainly more to the topic and how it plays into pruning and plant growth. But this is the general idea I want folks to understand.

    20. Kim Says:

      Hi, I had the most gorgeous Taylor Junipers until this weekend when a 30 year Spring Snow may have destroyed them. I don’t know what to do with them. Today two days later the snow has melted off of them. None of them are standing straight with a couple possibly having the tops broke off them. There are several branches broke through out the tree. The branches are no longer upright but more like fanning out. I can’t find anything on the internet as to what I should do with these junipers. I do plan to give them more time knowing they will never be what they were! I would be happy if I can do something with them without having to remove them. I could send photos if you would like. Thanks!

    21. Roger Says:

      Kim,
      You’ll need to prune/remove all broken stems and branches. Make clean pruning cuts behind the “breaks” at appropriate branch junctures and/or above healthy buds.

      In addition to removing damaged stems and branches, prune back the healthy stems & branches so they’re stronger and not bearing so much extra weight. This will also encourage the healthy stems & branches to push newer growth laterally (and not just grow in length).

      Overtime, and with strategic pruning, you can allow a strong stem to become the dominant leader and let the plant evolve back to its “upright” character.

    22. Kris C Kersch Says:

      They say to prune juniper early spring and later winter. I plan to skim prune the low lying juniper and more extensive on the upright. Question: Do you prune before or after watering? And how long should you wait to water after you prune? And how long after watering should you wait before pruning?

    23. Roger Says:

      Kris,
      Watering schedule should not be an issue as it relates to pruning.

    24. Bill Says:

      I have a long row of Blue Point Junipers that are about 8 yrs old and 12′ high in full sun. The interior is browning and since the exterior branches are not that dense you can see into the interior and they are becoming unsightly. What is causing this, lack of light? Insect damage? Normal? Is there any way to get these looking better, more dense green? I am afraid to cut any green off as it will just expose more brown middle. Thank you!

    25. Roger Says:

      Bill,
      It’s hard to give a strong opinion when not seeing the plants or the environment they’re in.

      The fact that the browning is in the interior and they’re all showing this condition tells me this is normal. But again, I can’t be sure and the plant would have to be looked at by a knowledgeable person.

      Many of these upright junipers will brown on the interior as they get older. And as the outer growth extends, the branches begin to splay apart exposing the browning interior. I know you’re concerned about doing any pruning, but if you would tip-prune the healthy ends, that would encourage more lateral growth down the stems and branches. This could help disguise the browning interior.

    26. Bill Says:

      Roger,

      Thank you for the prompt and detailed response. I will try tip-pruning and see if that helps. Here are some pictures, maybe they will shed more light on the situation.

      http://www.fototime.com/6F2676A3D6D91A7/orig.jpg

      http://www.fototime.com/C0E6C3F4068BEBD/orig.jpg

      http://www.fototime.com/955EED3300DDDCE/orig.jpg

      http://www.fototime.com/1EE431A5514D9E6/orig.jpg

    27. Roger Says:

      Bill,
      Even with the pictures, w/o being right there it’s difficult to determine if anything is possibly bothering your juniper — other then the natural interior browning we’ve talked about.

      But I will say this, if those plants are important to you it makes sense to be sure they don’t have an insect or disease problem. 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 upright juniper to your state’s affiliated university. Here’s a link to the webpage to find the Cooperative Extension Offices in your area.

      Rutgers diagnostic lab never lets me down. You should have the same positive experience through the university your extension office directs you to. Not only do these university labs give accurate diagnoses, but they’ll also make recommendations for correcting the problem (if you have one).

      Alternatively you could search for a certified plant health care specialist or arborist in your area to take a look. Also, sometimes a professional garden center or plant nursery will have knowledgeable folks on staff to help diagnose problems.

    28. Barbara Haschmann Says:

      Dear Roger,
      HOW do I find a TRUE professional to try to save my Skyrocket with your method? I have hired companies who say they’re professional landscapers, but often I can see they are doing things that I read online are not right, for instance just pruning the outside of a bush, not pruning out the dead wood inside. I need someone with real experience and not just a phone number and a website, you know? One company even pulled out a clematis I had been nursing for 4 years that was finally going to bloom. I live in Upstate New York.

      Thank you.

    29. Roger Says:

      Barbara,
      You’re not alone in your search for a knowledgeable landscape professional.

      My design clients are constantly asking for recommendations. And if they’re not asking I’m desperately searching on my own because of the improper care their landscapes are getting.

      And I’m afraid the level of professionalism (in terms of true horticultural knowledge and trade skill) is not getting any better. There are still a few bastions of skilled landscape professionals out there, but they’re not easy to find. And typically they’re smaller businesses that are overwhelmed with work.

      You could try asking at local garden centers and plant nurseries. They may know talented people, and there may even be someone on staff that does work on the side. You could contact your local garden club (most communities have one) and ask. Is there a college or trade school in your area that teaches horticulture/landscape development? Any homes in your area that you notice are particularly well cared for that you could ask?

      Barbara, I wish I could be more helpful. And if you do find “that person,” hold on to them! :-)

    30. Barbara Haschmann Says:

      Thanks, Roger. Those are great ideas. I’ll give them a try!

    31. Ashley Says:

      Dear Roger,

      We have a myriad of old junipers growing in and over an old rock retaining wall on an embankment. They have a whole lot of dead brown branches, dead all the way to the tips. They are in almost full shade now, perhaps that’s why. But they will get more sun soon, as we are removing some trees near them.

      It may be that we will lose these junipers entirely, but we want to at least make a try at saving them, since they are embedded in the wall and we like them. Would it be better to prune all the dead branches off now(mid to late August), or wait until dormancy? We would like to do it now, but perhaps we should wait. When do you think the best time to do that would be? It will be a big amount cut off from each juniper….

      Thank you!

    32. Roger Says:

      Ashley,
      It’s hard to give accurate advice on something like this without being on-site. I’m sure the shade has played a part in the junipers decline. But there could be other things going on here as well.
      I would do some pruning now. Lean more on the conservative side and try to remove just those branches that are clearly brown. Branches that show some life I would prune back a bit to encourage new growth below where you’ve pruned.
      Also, in the spring (2018) I would suggest fertilizing the juniper with something like Holly-tone (for acid-loving plants).

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