How To Prune Upright Junipers

How-To's · Written by Roger


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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    64 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:

      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:

      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.

    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:

      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:

      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:

      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

    14. Roger Says:

      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.

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