A GROWING CONCERN: Make your evergreens a cut above the rest

OKAY, I PUSHED you last week to decorate your garden with evergreen displays — but how do you harvest them?

First, let me make it crystal clear that today we are talking only about conifers or softwood trees, evergreen trees with needles or scales only — not deciduous trees or evergreen broad leaves.

You should not be pruning your rhododendrons or azaleas, camellias, hydrangeas, apples, pears, plums or shade trees. However, your conifers are ideal to prune now and the clippings are most desirable, as you learned last week.

Today, I want to re-emphasize the importance of pruning your conifers correctly, because to do so incorrectly is to forever change, alter and most likely destroy your evergreens.

There are only two types of cuts in all the pruning you will ever do. Can you believe that? Only two types of cuts? They are heading cuts and thinning cuts. But how these two cuts differ, and especially the disparate results they each achieve or force, truly makes all the difference in the world.

Heading cut

A heading cut is a cut anywhere up or down a stem, branch, trunk, stock, limb or cane that severs that particular plant part somewhere between the point of origin and the tip.

By cutting, you “head off” the tip, the all-important terminal tip of that plant piece. This heading cut must be made exactly distal to a node, which is a leaf or leaf scar or a place where a branch or stem radiates off.

That’s the secret of a heading cut — it either causes new growth (e.g. branches and stems to grow in a place they would not) or causes the existing and remaining branches just below the cut to grow exceedingly well as they mature to now become the new terminal tips of that plant.

In easier terms, heading cuts cause plants to become far bushier, prolific, fuller, fruit-laden and dense.

Growers perform massive numbers of heading cuts on evergreen trees to transform them from the spindly native-looking trees into those so thick you can barely hang ornaments on them.

Thinning cuts

A thinning cut is a one that removes a stem, branch, trunk, stalk, limb or cane at the exact spot it radiates from.

You prune it off at the place of origin, thinning that piece of plant completely from the stem, branch, trunk, stalk, limb or cane.

Removing or thinning branches from a plant allows light and ventilation into the center of the plant, which is most desirable and advantageous. It also increases the vigor and vitality of the remaining plant parts by diverting the excess root capacity to the remaining tips for flower, fruit and new leaf production.

Now that you know these two types of cuts, let’s see how they work with your softwoods.

As a whole, you do not want to head-off conifers unless you are expressly looking to thicken up the plant — such as in the case of junipers planted for a hedge, pines as a visual screen or for evergreens being grown specifically as Christmas trees.

Heading-off conifers forever changes their growth, especially if it is the main growing tip. And never prune and head-off evergreen growth that is more than three years old.

Conifers headed-off back in old growth do not sprout anew and in fact slowly die, which is why a juniper plant sheared off (headed-off) along the driveway looks just as brown and dead now as it did five years ago when you pruned it.

Only tip off the fresh growth, if you must.

Instead, if possible, lift the branches that stick out in the driveway and thin them at the point of origin. That way they are not only gone completely out of the driveway, but will not grow back at that spot ever again.

Remember also that when branches are growing toward the house and rubbing on the siding, a thinning cut takes care of the problem without causing new growth to grow back into the house.

So clip away your evergreens, but be very, very careful to choose the right pruning cut. You’ll accumulate the valued-added clippings in order to create masterpiece arrangements that provide the winter bonus benefits of mulch to the ground, plants and bulbs below.

So stay warm and safe, and stay well all!


Andrew May is a freelance writer and ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email news@peninsuladailynews.com (subject line: Andrew May).

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