Bob Westerfield is a University of Georgia Extension Horticulturist. Adrianne Todd is a horticulture program assistant working for Bob at the Griffin campus.

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Pruning Tips to Salvage an Overgrown Landscape
by Bob Westerfield and Adrianne Todd       #Landscaping   #Pruning   #Shrubs

As a horticulture specialist for the University of Georgia, I certainly get my share of frustrated homeowners that want me to help them recover their house from their overgrown landscape. Where they once had a beautiful vista of their backyard or swimming pool, they now suddenly have a blob of green obscuring the view. Many times, they are uncertain whether they should try to prune the bush down a few feet in hope of getting their window back, or go through the arduous task of yanking out the beastly plant altogether. While the best solution would have been to plant the appropriately sized plant to begin with, we do not always have that luxury when we purchase a used home. Renewal pruning, sometimes called rejuvenating pruning, is one option that can help recover a severely overgrown plant or landscape. This radical pruning technique can buy some time and add many years to your existing overgrown plants.

Extensive Rejuvenation
Using a pruning saw, prune the plant to a height of 6-15 inches.

Unpruned Shrub
Gradual Rejuvenation
The first year, prune every other branch to 6-8 inches. The following year, prune the branches previously left untouched.

It might be helpful at this point to define exactly what rejuvenating pruning is. In simple terms, it means taking an existing overgrown shrub and pruning it back radically to a height of 6-15 inches. When radically pruning a shrub, you are essentially removing all existing branches as well as any damaged trunks, giving the plant a second chance of being a shapely and attractive shrub. A plant that has been rejuvenated through pruning be reminiscent of a coat rack when you finish the job. However, done properly at the right time of year, the shrub will re-flush within the same season, once again providing a more manageable plant in your landscape. A chemical hormone in the base of the plant triggers a positive response, signaling to the many hidden buds to regenerate and sprout new growth.

When it comes to pruning plants in this radical fashion, the time of year in which you do it means everything. Severe pruning should be done just prior to the new spring growth. In most cases, this means that your rejuvenating pruning should be done anytime from late January through late February. If your plant is an early blooming variety such as an azalea, you will definitely lose the bloom in the upcoming season. However, the reason to employ such a severe pruning is to salvage an overgrown plant that is no longer welcome. Blooming plants will recover and provide a show again the following year.

It is important to consider that not every shrub out there can be radically pruned and rejuvenated. Bearing that in mind, the fortunate fact is that the majority of plants can. On the short list of what not to prune severely would be juniper varieties, boxwoods, pine species, cedars and most hardwood trees. They will not recover well from a hard pruning. That leaves a long list of many plants in the landscape that can be cut back hard in order to bring back new life. Most large-leafed shrubs such as hollies, ligustrums and similar plants recover well from this type of pruning. Even many small-leafed shrubs such as yaupon, azalea or Japanese hollies come back readily when severely pruned for recovery reasons. If you are in doubt about whether the plants you have can be severely pruned, or you aren’t even sure what type of plant you have, take a branch or sample of the plant to your local extension office for identification. This might save a lot of later grief.

This large luster leaf holly should have been cut back closer to the ground to form a totally new plant. As it is, the new emerging branches will be very unproportional to the existing stubs.

Another example of not pruning severe enough. This plant should have been taken down to a height of 8 to 10 inches from the ground.

When it comes to giving our shrubs a crew cut, there are a few techniques that work best. Depending on the diameter of the limbs, your selection of pruning equipment may vary. While a small hand clipper could easily cut back a Knock Out rose or butterfly bush, you need heavier artillery to tackle overgrown hollies and larger stemmed plants. Pruning saws, particularly the razor sharp folding type sold in most nurseries, perform well on larger branched shrubs. In the most severe cases, I sometimes use a small chainsaw to eliminate half or more of the upper half of the plant and then use large lopping shears or a pruning saw to make finishing cuts, 6-8 inches at the base of the plant. Your final cuts should always be as clean as possible and done at a slight angle to allow water to run off. The final result is to have a cleanly cut stump with short stems protruding out on a slight angle. While you may be tempted to use a pruning seal, or paint, on these exposed stems, our research shows that leaving them open to heal is the best method for a speedy recovery and flush of new growth. As the plant begins to shoot out new growth in the spring and summer, you may need to trim it and pinch it back a few times to create a fuller shape.



If the thought of pruning your beloved shrub down to the ground is just too much for you to bear, there is an alternative. You could consider doing what is called a two-year renewal pruning. Basically, the technique is the same, except in this case, you only prune out every other main branch to 6-8 inches. This leaves every other branch untouched to provide a less drastic, early look to your landscape. The following year, prune the branches you previously left untouched, allowing the ones you pruned out earlier to continue to re-flush.

This holly is almost lost in the other shrubs due to its overgrown size. A renewal pruning can salvage the plant for years to come.

The same overgrown holly now taken back severely to encourage a more manageable plant to form from the base.

Within the year this holly has began to sprout up new shoots making it a more manageable size.

Rejuvenating pruning is a great alternative to completely removing overgrown shrubs in your landscape. Rather than going to the expense and trouble of uprooting the old and putting in a new shrub, you may be able to pull a few more years out of the old plant. When done properly, this method of pruning can make an existing landscape go from being completely overgrown and unsightly to nearly new and attractive.


(Photos courtesy of Bob Westerfield. Illustrations courtesy of Virgina Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University.)


Posted: 02/10/16   RSS | Print


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Macnc - 03/16/2019

I have a holly tree. That I want to trim down. But can this method of taking down to the ground be used for a tree that has 2-4 trunks and they are all thick. As in super thick. I have a 8” pole saw and it would never cut thru them. A gas chainsaw would be needed.

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treehugger - 06/03/2019

I also have a multi trunk Yaupon Ilex vomitoria in Texas , it is huge and has no shape at all. I would like to cut it and shape it better. I am afraid to cut so low, I like the look of those long and thick trunks. Any suggestions , if I could reduce the hight and get a sort of mushroom shape canopy ? thank you

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treehugger - 06/03/2019

Just to add, I would like to keep it as in a tree form and not a shrub,

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