Pruning Big Boxwoods — When & How

January 24, 2016 | By | Comments (2)

Photo: Steve Bender

Faithful reader, Gail, asks, “What is the best way to cut back or prune two very large boxwoods that are on each side of our church entrance steps? They are at least 6 feet tall and 6 feet wide. They are very old and we don’t want to get rid of them.” Other readers want to know how to prune big boxwoods at their homes. As always, Grumpy has the answer.

Boxwoods can be pruned any time but late summer and early fall. This is because pruning then will spur new growth that won’t harden off in time for winter and be killed by the cold. Severe late summer pruning followed by a cold winter could even kill the entire shrubs.

Of course, the best way to avoid having to cut back overgrown boxwoods is not to let them get overgrown in the first place. Most types grow slowly, so one pruning a year keeps them in bounds. You can do this with hand pruners or shears. Also remove any dead branches at this time as well as plant debris that accumulates in the center of the shrubs.

You’ll notice that the magnificent boxwoods shown above at Montrose, the garden of Nancy Goodwin in Hillsborough, North Carolina, haven’t been sheared. They’re the result of a painstaking practice called “cloud pruning” performed with hand pruners. New growth is nipped back and then small branches are removed from the insides of the shrubs to create openings between layers of foliage. The end result looks a bit like a cumulus clouds. Opening up the bushes this way gives a natural look and increases penetration of sunlight and air to the centers. Healthier bushes ensue.

However, what if your boxwoods have gotten monstrous — too big for hand pruners — and you need to cut them back beyond the outside foliage so you can walk freely up the steps or see out of a window? This calls for drastic, but necessary, action.

Put away the hand pruners and shears. You need loppers. Cut back the main limbs as far as needed to solve the problem. But try to maintain a rounded, mounded look. Don’t cut the bushes into boxes.

Yes, many of the branches will then be leafless. And if you do this in winter, you’ll be staring at nekkid branches a long time. So Grumpy suggests waiting until spring. The shorter, nekkid branches will quickly clothe themselves in new foliage.

Crepe Murder 2016

Crepe Murder

First, do no harm.

Crepe Murder 2016 officially kicks off February 1, 2016!  Entries will be accepted from then until Tuesday, February 16. This gives you plenty of time, including a long weekend, to creep silently around your neighborhood, smart phone in hand, and take photos of horribly butchered trees like the one above. Email your photos to with “Crepe Murder 2016” in the subject line. Start looking!





  1. Janie Killian

    Outdid yourself on the 50th Anniversary Edition! I’m still laughing! Absolutely LOVE your articles every month & turn to them first ALWAYS…even past all the cool plants & yummy food pictures!!! Gotten some good advice from you on plants but the best by far is the “red Christmas balls on the tomato plants”! This should be great fun in the summer…might have to sneak a few pictures of those birds & squirrels trying to eat those little things. But I have some great advice for you on getting unwanted pests out of your garden…get a good old Southern Beagle & that AAAROOOOOO howl will keep everything very afraid! Keep on gardening! Love ya!

    January 25, 2016 at 10:10 pm
  2. Lester Castellow

    Grump, do your comments apply to Korean boxwood? I was raised in Atlanta and remember the beauty and the smell of English boxwoods in old Atlsnta gardens. I have lived the last 35 years in South Georgia where the only boxwood is Asian. I have applied the recommendations of Enhlish boxwood experts to my old asiatic (Korean) box woods for the last 7 years and they work. The most important pointer (applicable to English and Asidn) – don’t try to shear them to achieve a smooth, cultivated look. Prune dead branches deep inside and leave the shrub with holes so light and air penetrate beyond the outer shell of leaves.
    BTW, many thanks for your crusade against two of my pet peaves: crape murder and indiscriminate planting of Bradford Pears

    January 25, 2016 at 6:43 pm

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