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Shaping Evergreen Shrubs

Q: Can I trim my evergreen shrub to look more like a tree?

This Old House landscaping contractor Roger Cook

I have an evergreen shrub that's gotten a little too chubby. Normally I trim it with an electric clipper, but now I'd like to prune the lower branches to make it look more like a tree. Would that be okay?

— Rose Raiter, Eagle, Wisconsin


Roger Cook replies: Don't do it. Your shrub will end up looking more like a mushroom than a tree.

The problem here is that the shrub is so thick on the outside that nothing can grow on the inside, and without inside growth you can't change its size or shape. But if you're patient, there are a couple of ways to restore fullness so that you can prune it the way you like.

Start by throwing away your electric shears. Then, using a bypass hand pruner and bypass loppers, prune about one-third of the major branches to create some openings into the center of the plant. This will allow sunlight to reach the interior, where it will stimulate dormant buds to sprout. Cut off each stem at a point just above the buds, and lightly prune the outside of the shrub to make it look neat.

Next year, cut out another third of the older branches, and then another third the year after that. By the fourth summer, you should have plenty of interior growth to let you prune the shrub back to a manageable size. From that point on, keep it in check by hand pruning.


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