Pruning A Shrub Into A Tree: Learn How To Prune Shrubs Into Trees

blossoming tree Jasmine with Green Leaves, ancient wall background
Image by a_lis

By Bonnie L. Grant

There is something elegant and regal about a tree that a shrub or bush just seems to be missing. You can transform that mundane shrub into a single stemmed plant in most cases by pruning a shrub into a tree. All you need is a little know how and some proper pruning techniques to learn how to turn a shrub into a small tree.

How to Turn a Shrub into a Small Tree

The experts know how to prune shrubs into trees and nurseries do it all the time with the standards they sell. What sets a tree apart from a shrub? The single stem. That means reducing the stems to one single trunk will give you the appearance of a tree even if the shrub doesn’t achieve soaring heights. Trimming large bushes into trees takes many years, but the results are professional, unique and statuesque.


Many varieties of shrubs are good candidates to turn into single stemmed specimens. Look for one that has a more or less vertical stem that can be used as the main support for the plant. It is easiest to start pruning a shrub into a tree before it develops a lot of stems, but you can also use pruning to get the shape you want.

Occasionally, you will not be able to separate out a single stem but will have to make do with a couple of main stems. That is okay and will still give the general appearance of a tree while directing growth only into those stems and increasing the plant’s height.

The initial technique in how to prune shrubs into trees is a bit brutal and not for the faint of heart. Once you have decided on the stem that will be the trunk, cut out all the other lower stems. You will need to remove the bottom 1/3 of the plant or as much as is needed to get the semblance of a trunk. Do not do any further pruning for a year, as the plant needs the upper foliage to generate food for rejuvenation.

Use a stout stake inserted as close to the new central leader as possible. This will keep the new “trunk” straight as it grows. Really woody shrubs will need to have the bottom 1/3 pruned annually for 3 to 4 years. Then it’s time to train the canopy.

Trimming Large Bushes into Small Trees

Big tangled older shrubs are a bit of a nightmare to turn into trees but even they can become single stemmed. You may find yourself crawling around on your hands and knees as you remove the lowest stems, but the basic technique is the same. Always leave 2/3 of the plant intact even if that means that your trunk doesn’t resemble a trunk the first year.

Older plants need a slower process but the result will be even more spectacular because of all that vigorous growth. Pruning a shrub into a tree allows you to control the architecture of your landscape and can make managing shrubs easier over time.

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