KC Gardens

Here’s the difference between pruning and mutilating your evergreen shrubs

Pruning evergreen shrubs in their natural shape helps keep the plant healthy and attractive.
Pruning evergreen shrubs in their natural shape helps keep the plant healthy and attractive. Johnson County K-State Research and Extension

Late spring is an excellent time to prune evergreen shrubs. Pruning just after the emergence of the spring growth provides a basis for shaping the plant to retain its natural look.

Shrub pruning tools consist of a pair of hand clippers and maybe loppers. No hedge trimmers are needed if you are pruning for a natural look, which is best for landscapes.

Pruning evergreens into little boxes, balls or rectangles is not pruning but shrub mutilation. Only in formal hedges or landscapes should evergreens be pruned in a tight, sheared manner.

Evergreens are frequently planted around the foundation of the home to hide exposed concrete or to accent the doorway. Pruning these plants into children’s building blocks does not soften the foundation, but instead marks it with a red flag, drawing more attention than desired. Often the shrub is sheared so closely that a “dead zone” appears, leaving a gaping hole in the shrub.

Do not prune back an evergreen any deeper than where green growth is showing. Evergreens do not renew as quickly as deciduous shrubs. Once the dead area is uncovered, you will be stuck with it for some time.

Pruning for a natural look is simple and easy. The only drawback is it will take a few minutes longer because it requires you to think.

Start by looking at the branching structure of the plant — how the limbs come out and what direction they point or grow. When you are done pruning, you want to retain this look, but smaller.

Take hold of each overgrown limb and cut it back at a random point. Cut back to another branch, pointing the direction you would like for the plant to grow. Repeat this process on the entire plant until all overgrown branches are shortened.

Stop and look frequently at the plant to make sure you’re retaining the natural shape. Plants that have been sheared countless times may have to be removed. Chances are they are overgrown for the area and a new, more vigorous plant would help renew the landscape.

If the heavily sheared plants are still healthy, it may take a couple of years for them to fully recover from years of bad practices.

Pruning evergreens such as junipers, yews, euonymus, boxwood and holly for a natural look will show off the beauty of the plant forms. It is simple to do and will result in an attractive plant for the landscape.

Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? You can also email them to garden.help@jocogov.org.

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