Pruning Mugo Pines: Do Mugo Pines Need To Be Pruned

By: Teo Spengler

Do mugo pines need to be pruned? While mugo pine pruning is not necessary for the plant to develop a strong branch structure, many gardeners trim their trees to make them shorter and more compact. For more information on pruning mugo pines, read on.

Do Mugo Pine Need to Be Pruned?

There are two main reasons for pruning mugo pine: to limit the tree’s size and to shape the tree. If you do not want to do either of these things, there is no need to prune your mugo pine.

Mugo pine is a small, pyramidal shrub that can grow between 4 and 10 feet (1-3 m.) tall. If yours looks like it will be on the taller side and you want it shorter, you’ll need to prune it to keep it small.

How to Prune a Mugo Pine

The principal rule when it comes to mugo pine pruning is this: do not prune in the fall. Pines do not produce new buds from old growth. That means that the tree will stop growing from any pruning points if you cut branches out of season. Instead, prune mugo pine in spring and only trim the new growth. Tender new growth on mugo pines appears as “candles” on the branch tips.

To keep the mugo pine from getting too tall, cut the mugo pine candles in half in springtime. This reduces the size the new growth will achieve in the season. Done annually, this keeps the mugo pine to a reasonable size. It also makes the shrub/tree’s canopy thicker. If it gets too thick, you may want to remove some exterior candles.

Pruning Mugo Pine to Shape

The ideal shape for mugo pine is smooth and rounded. If your mugo pine had holes in its canopy, you can correct them by shape pruning. Pruning mugo pines to shape involves not pruning candles in areas where more growth is required. Figure out which candles can grow to fill in a canopy hole, then skip these when you are pruning.

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Here is a link that might be useful: How to post photos


Let's see if this will work.

You can see in the first picture where a newer, smaller section of the pine has started growing. This is what I'd like to trim away if possible. There are a couple of sections like that within the plant.

I also included a close up shot of the branches, just in case it is not a mugo pine after all - somebody might be able to tell me what it is.

Here is a link that might be useful: Mugo Pine Pictures


There's what looks like two self-sown trees (a maple and ? an elm) growing up through the middle of it, you might want to remove those before they become huge trees.

Unfortunately, pruning off branches crossing the boundary (tho' I can't see the boundary!) or elsewhere would leave unsightly bare patches which wouldn't regrow. I'd guess the best option is to discuss it with the neighbours to see what they think maybe they like it as it is and might prefer to keep it without pruning.


The neighbors aren't being difficult about it (yet) but we both agree the pine is getting a bit large for either of our liking.
There are actually 4 trees growing up in the middle of the pine - you can only see the 2 larger ones in the picture. All 4 will be removed, but I would need to trim away the pine in order to get to the base of the trees for removal.
Do you think grass seed would not grow in the bare patches if we cut away some of the pine branches?


You can worm your way in there. Have someone help you part the branches one at a time till you have a workable space. If necessary drive a narrow wooden stake to hold branches apart while you cut the tree out. Paint the top of the cut with Roundup to kill it or it will be back.

Grass seed will not cover the dead wood look if you trim out branches. If you and your neighbor can't live with its present growth habit wait till you start pruning on it. I am sure you will find that those results will not be to your liking also. Remember what you cut out will not grow back and that patchy dead wood look will be there forever.

I hope you and your neighbor can come to a mutual conclusion just to live with it. This mugo would be an asset in any arboretum. I would guess age to be 30-40 years old.


Thanks Dave.
I'll need to have a heart-to-heart with my neighbor and see what they think. I agree it's a beautiful plant and I'd hate to ruin it.
Thanks also for the advice about pulling the other trees.


If you do make pruning an option for control of what is there already, you'll need to follow this information.

Each spring into June the shrub will produce new growth candles. When these candles (about June) transition (watch for this) from softwood to starting to harden to medium wood or better yet the best marker is when the needles begin to unfold. It's very visible because while a candle is being produced, you'll see stages where the elongation of the new growth candle happens, then you'll see stubs of needles begin to appear on the candle and finally the needles will elongate as well. This elongation period is the time to prune.

Mugo Pines: When to Trim and Prune

Google keeps sending people to my blog for answers on when to prune a mugho or mugo pine . I know I’ve mentioned it in posts, but now it is time to inform everyone of the best time and the proper way to prune a Pinus mugo mugo

An excellent variety of Mugo Pine, ‘Valley Cushion’

Don’t trim or prune your pine in the fall. That is the short answer. Pines will stop growing from the points at which you prune off their branches (they do not produce new buds from old wood) if you do it out of season. The right season is when the new candle growth begins in the spring.

The right way and time to prune a Mugo is when the new growth (candles) sprout out .You simply spruce them up (couldn’t resist the pun) by cutting the candles in half. Some people say “pinch growth by two thirds”, but I let them get a bit longer and slice them in half with the pruners (secateurs).

The main thing is to cut back just the new growth at this time.

Prune a Mugo Pine in the Spring

If you prune in this way it gives the most natural looking trim. I would keep up with it regularly, since mugos often get bigger than their reputation for being dwarf would indicate.

I have two shrubs at this property and had several at my city home years ago. There is a lot of variation in the compactness and ultimate size of pine shrubs labeled “Mugho” or “Mugo”.

They all look so nice and compact when you get the little ones at the nursery, but they grow into sizes that can overwhelm foundation plantings if you let them. The expert reason given:

Mugo Pine’s incredible, yet frustrating, variation is primarily the result of its large native range. Plants with large territories tend to have greater nature/variation than plants with small ranges because they must be flexible enough to adapt to different climactic conditions to survive. Mugo pine’s native range is western Europe, eastern Europe, southern Europe, and western Asia. Such a broad range requires a chameleon-like ability to adapt to different situations, which is why specimens of every size, shape and description can be found. Although there are many kinds of cultivated and naturally growing types, all are commonly known as mugo pine.

So there you go- if you happen to have one that grows larger, you can use the pruning technique of halving the candles each year, or so, to control the size. If I were to go shopping for mugo pine shrubs today I would look for the P. mugo cultivars “Mops”, “Sherwood Compact” and “Slowmound”… as advised by Anne Pink.

The mugo pine is located behind the hydrangea

When I started to garden, I initially got hooked on perennials. To make room for as many as possible in my small city lot, I got rid of my front-yard patch of grass and began planting. My entry garden was soon a showcase of color and texture from spring to fall. But something was missing. My garden needed more of a framework, including some vertical accents and year-round plantings.

My tiny lot did not afford much space for full-size trees and shrubs, but I knew I could make room for a few dwarf conifers, which usually don’t get taller than 1 to 6 feet in 10 years. Adding some conifers to the mix turned out to be the perfect solution.

Dwarf conifers can serve as versatile plants regardless of how much space you have. Three key ways to use them are as anchors of ever-changing planting vignettes, as vertical elements in a design, and in clusters with other dwarf conifers.

The selection of dwarf conifers available to home gardeners has greatly increased in the past decade. You can find them in shades of green, blue, and yellow and in variegated colors. I find it helpful to choose a conifer based on its color and its habit, whether upright, mounding, or pyramidal (see chart).

Although it may seem more daunting to purchase and plant a conifer than a perennial, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Fortunately, the small size and slow-growth habit of dwarf conifers make them easier to transplant than some woody plants. In fact, gardeners considering a move within 10 years of planting a dwarf conifer would likely be able to pack it up along with their favorite perennials, roses, and household belongings.

Year-round anchors. A creeping blue juniper cascades on a rocky slope and serves as a centerpiece among seasonally changing plantings.

Use small changes to anchor changing vignettes

A planting with year-round appeal is a great way to enhance the entrance to your home. Two avid gardeners I know in Milwaukee, Steve Bialk and Angela Duckert, created just that. A dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca var. albertiana ‘Conica’, USDA Hardiness Zones 2–6) serves as the central figure in their front-yard vignette, providing soft texture and a pyramidal shape that balance the low heft of a large boulder. In summer, the bold, blue-green leaves of a Hosta cultivar (Zones 3–9) contrast with the spruce’s fine needles. Two golden Eastern arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Sunkist’, Zones 4–7) and a low-growing juniper round out the scene. Behind the spruce, a variegated miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’, Zones 6–9) adds a bright accent with its narrowstriped leaves, which repeat the variegation of a deadnettle (Lamium maculatum cv., Zones 4–8). In fall, the hosta turns a beautiful yellow, echoing the color of the arborvitae foliage. The evergreens continue to add colorful structure in winter.I think of dwarf conifers as garden stalwarts. One way to capitalize on these evergreens is to make them anchors in mixed plantings that change from season to season. Compact evergreens provide attractive stability in a bed or border as bulbs, perennials, and annuals come and go. Conifers with all types of contours, from low mounds to pyramids, can be used in this way.

In another mixed planting, a dwarf mugo pine (Pinus mugo ssp. mugo, Zones 3–7), a ‘Rheingold’ arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Rheingold’, Zones 2–7), and a daylily (Hemerocallis cv., Zones 3–10) create an appealing vignette. The green needles of the mugo pine contrast with the color and texture of the apricot-tinged arborvitae. The arborvitae foliage forms a pleasing color harmony with the melon-colored daylily blossoms. The planting is completed by a skirt of the foliage of a bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum, Zones 4–8).

Dwarf conifers also mix well with roses and deciduous shrubs. In another part of this yard, an established dwarf blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’, Zones 2–8) serves as the steadfast element of a mixed planting along the corner of a slope. A dwarf Norway spruce (Picea abies ‘Mucronata’, Zones 3–8) adds textural contrast next to a hardy shrub rose that blooms throughout the summer. The rose’s attractive hips add to the winter interest provided by the conifers. A yellow barberry (Berberis thunbergii cv., Zones 5–8) contrasts with the blue spruce and harmonizes with the chartreuse blooms of lady’s mantle. Hostas, daylilies, and other perennials provide interesting foliage and seasonal blooms.

A dwarf blue spruce (far right) and an intermediate-size arborvitae (far left) serve as upright markers along a stairway.

Dwarf conifers can add verticality

A common challenge that gardeners face is finding plants that add height without taking up a lot of space. A dwarf conifer with either a vertical, narrow habit or a pyramidal form can lend height to a combination, serve as a focal point, or add a sense of depth to a small or narrow bed. Good candidates for this type of design include upright and narrow arborvitae, false cypresses, and junipers. Pyramidal candidates include dwarf Alberta spruce and ‘Technito’ arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Technito’, Zones 3–7), a recently introduced smaller version of ‘Techny’ arborvitae.

As you walk through the Bialk-Duckert yard, the vertical structure provided by dwarf blue spruces and arborvitae helps unify the garden while expanding the sense of space. At one corner of the lot, dwarf conifers provide vertical accents that soften the horizontal impact of a rock wall by creating a sense of scale and balance. An upright, intermediate arborvitae (T. occidentalis ‘Yellow Ribbon’, Zones 2–7), with intriguing swirls of golden foliage, and a pyramidal dwarf Alberta spruce serve as a visual bridge between mounds of perennials and towering trees in the background.

Two dwarf blue spruces mediate the scale between low-growing perennials and tall conifers.

In another area of this garden, a backdrop planting of dwarf Alberta spruce draws attention from a hosta and astilbes in the foreground to create a pleasing sense of depth. The vertical backdrop of trees also helps muffle city noise and blocks the view of nearby buildings.

Cluster conifers for impact

In addition to enhancing mixed plantings, small conifers can be grouped with other conifers in eye-catching ways. A simple combination of two dwarf conifers, such as a ‘Fat Albert’ blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’, Zones 2–8) and a ‘Golden Mop’ sawara cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Golden Mop’, Zones 4–8), looks more dynamic than a few sheared yews lined up against a house foundation. In a garden with more space, use dwarf conifers to dress up an existing planting of evergreens. Dwarf and intermediate conifers can add color, form, and texture to an otherwise monotonous windbreak of tall conifers such as Colorado spruce and Austrian pines.

Two dwarf golden Eastern arborvitae and a blue juniper create a textural vignette with a cotoneaster.

You can also enliven a serviceable evergreen hedge with a colorful companion or two. The broader, branching form of a ‘Montgomery’ blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’, Zones 2–8) contrasts nicely with the narrowly upright forms of an array of arborvitae.

One of my favorite conifer groupings is what I call “Rich’s Gnome Forest.” Rich Eyre planted about 20 green and blue dwarf Alberta spruces close together to create a small-scale forest at his nursery, Rich’s Foxwillow Pines Nursery, in Woodstock, Illinois. One of his customers liked the planting enough to emulate it in his own landscape. Surrounded by a ground cover of creeping sedums, this miniature forest always gets a second look from visitors.

Dwarf conifers can be used to control erosion and eliminate the need to mow on a steep slope. Combined with a few weed-suppressing ground covers, a planting of several dwarf conifers can serve as an attractive and low-maintenance design solution.

A grouping of dwarf Alberta spruces creates the effect of a miniature forest.

Whether you have a large yard or a postage-stamp city lot, I’ll bet you can find space for a few dwarf conifers. I certainly have—about eight and counting. My ‘Gentsch’s White’ hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ‘Gentsch’s White’, Zones 4–8) adds a vertical accent, and its white-tipped foliage brightens a corner of my shade garden. A bird’s nest spruce (Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’, Zones 3–8) provides a year-round anchor for a small grouping of brunnera (Brunnera macrophylla, Zones 3–7), tulips, and annual pentas (Pentas cvs.) near my ‘Candymint’ crab apple (Malus ‘Candymint’, Zones 4–8). And the opportunities to include dwarf conifers grow as my garden evolves. You may find, as I have, that your garden will feel richer for their presence.

Outstanding dwarf conifers

The author recommends the following plants for their exceptional traits and versatility within plantings. In general, they grow in average, well-drained garden soil and full sun. The habit illustrations depict the mature form of each plant, and the height is the plant’s size after 10 years.

Melinda Myers teaches horticulture in Milwaukee and hosts radio and television shows on gardening.

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