Pruning a Needle-Bearing Evergreen

By National Gardening Association Editors

Evergreens with needle-like foliage, called conifers, usually need pruning only to remove dead, damaged, or diseased limbs. You can also prune to keep their growth compact. Pruning methods vary depending on the conifer's branching habit.


Allow pyramid and column-shaped conifers to retain their natural shape by leaving their lower limbs intact. Instead of pruning, mulch around the tree to reduce mowing conflict.

Choose naturally slow growing dwarf conifers for small spaces. Many conifer trees species have dwarf varieties available.

Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association.

Tools and Materials

  • Hand pruners
  • Loppers
  • Safety glasses
  • Leather gloves

Determine branching habit. Conifers with whorled branches, such as pine, spruce, and fir, have layers of branches around the trunk. Species with random branching, such as arborvitae, juniper, yew, and falsecypress, have limbs that occur all along the trunk.

Decide reason and season for pruning. Remove dead, damaged, or diseased limbs at any time of the year, regardless of branching habit, by cutting just outside the raised rings at the base of the limb. The branching habit matters most when pruning for compact growth, although both types should be pruned in spring before soft, new growth matures.

Pinch candles. Conifers have new shoots called "candles". To promote dense branching and shorter limbs, pinch candles before their needles lengthen and harden. On species with whorled branches, take care not to cut into older wood below the candle because these conifers have few or no dormant buds that can become new limbs.

Redirect growth. Conifers with random branching habits can sprout new limbs from older, foliage-bearing wood. Prune into this wood, if necessary, to make the conifer more compactly branched or to change the direction of the branch. To redirect growth, prune back to a side branch that is growing in a more desirable direction.

Maintain straight trunk. If two central shoots or leaders exist at the top of a pyramid-shaped conifer, remove one of them to maintain a straight, unforked trunk. If the central leader has died, create a new one by bending an uppermost limb into an upright position and securing it in place with stretchy fabric and a wooden splint. Remove ties when it can stand on its own.

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