How to Trim Conifer Trees

Written by emma watkins
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How to Trim Conifer Trees
Pinch new growth in half to thicken a conifer's foliage. (conifer at sunset image by christine dedman from

Conifer trees are evergreens that bear seeds in cones or cone-like structures. They usually develop a central leader naturally, which makes pruning to train them into a certain form unnecessary. Only occasionally, when you notice two branches growing above the trunk, you should trim one off so there will be only one central leader. Other corrective trimming might also be necessary and it will be done in different seasons.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Disinfectant
  • Shears
  • Wood or wire splints

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  1. 1

    Clean and disinfect your shears and other pruning tools to avoid transferring disease to your conifer tree. The Virginia Cooperative Extension recommends Lysol, Listerine or rubbing alcohol, explaining that bleach and Pine-Sol corrode metal tools.

  2. 2

    Replace your tree’s leader if a storm breaks it or disease kills it. Trim what’s left of the affected stem as soon as you notice the damage. Then, use a wood splint or flexible wire splints to support the uppermost lateral stem growing on the highest tree branch in a vertical position. That will become your new leader. Keep replacing the splint every growing season until the stem has been successfully trained to grow in an upright direction. Prune all lateral branches growing immediately below the new leader.

  3. 3

    Trim dead, diseased and broken lateral branches as soon as you notice them. Make the cuts several inches below the affected area and into healthy wood. But don’t prune branches flush to the trunk. Ideally, you should leave the branch collar intact, unless it’s also damaged. The branch collar is the area around the base of a branch that has a circumference larger than the rest of the branch, as if the tissue were swollen. It is what connects branches to the trunk.

  4. 4

    Pinch with your fingers the new growing tips of whorl-branched conifers in half in mid to late spring to make the foliage denser. The use of shears might brown the tips of the needles. Whorl-branched conifers have three or more branches that grow in a circle around the tip of the developing leader. Once a year, a new whorl is formed as the tip stretches up.

  5. 5

    Prune conifers in the summer to keep them down to the size you want. Make the cuts several inches away from branch collars at a 45- to 60-degree angle. Cutting into or removing the branch collar might cause decay to the trunk.

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