Spruce Pruning Essentials: Best Clipping Care for Healthy Spruce Trees

For the most part, spruce pruning is not necessary, but it’s good to know how and when to remove damaged branches or control their size.

A hand pruning a spruce tree
(Image credit: Lex20 / Getty Images)

You may have heard that pruning spruce trees in the landscape is an important way of maintaining their health, size, shape, and vigor. But this is more applicable to deciduous trees than evergreens. Generally, evergreen trees need little pruning, and that is certainly the case for spruce trees (Picea spp.) Spruce trees grow naturally in a pyramidal shape, broad with low branches, and they look best when left alone.

But there are a few times when trimming spruce trees is appropriate. Read on to learn when spruce pruning makes sense.

Why You Need to Prune Spruce

The general rule is that spruce trees require little pruning to stay healthy and vigorous. Neither spruce shrubs nor spruce trees require annual pruning to maintain their vitality. And some slow growing spice varieties like dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca var. albertiana ‘Conica’) - won’t tolerate spruce pruning at all. But you can prune most spruce species while the trees are young to make them bushier.

What about spruce trees that are getting too big for the site in which they are planted? While pruning is often used to reduce tree size in deciduous trees, pruning spruce shrubs or trees to reduce size can only be done occasionally. If you repeat the pruning too often, the needles can turn yellow and die back.

Removing lower branches of spruce trees is a bad idea, since the trees look best in their natural shape. They don’t get much growth in the lower branches and those removed rarely grow back. Removing the central leader on a spruce is always a bad idea.

But if your spruce has dead, diseased or damaged branches, it is termed corrective pruning and should be accomplished as soon as possible.

When to Prune Spruce Trees

Tree pruning timing can be a very important matter. But for spruce trees, pruning is largely done to take off dead, diseased or damaged branches. This type of corrective pruning - as well as pruning necessitated by winter storms - should be accomplished as quickly as possible after you notice it.

If you are pruning for other than corrective reasons, plan pruning spruce shrubs or trees in early summer. Avoid any pruning in late summer or early autumn since pruning can produce new growth that may die in the winter cold.

Pruning for Different Spruce Varieties

As mentioned above, some slow growing spruce species like dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca var. albertiana ‘Conica’), blue nest spruce, aka dwarf black spruce (Picea mariana ‘Nana’) and bird’s nest spruce (Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’) won’t tolerate spruce pruning at all.

How to Prune Spruce Trees

If you find your spruce in need of correctional pruning, you’ll want to use the right tools to undertake this important task. And you’ll want to know how to prune spruce trees.

Most gardeners do well with handheld pruning tools. The tool to use depends on the thickness of the branch to be cut. Use hand pruners for branches up to ½ inch in diameter. If the branch is between ½ and 1 ½ inches (1 and 2.5 cm) in diameter, use loppers, or lopping shears. For even larger branches, you’ll be best using a pruning saw.

If you are cutting out damaged or diseased branches, use a thinning cut. Thinning cuts are a type of pruning cut that takes out a branch at their points of origin. Contrast thinning cuts with heading cuts that take out branch tips back to lateral buds. Heading cuts can be used in spring to shape the spruce by cutting branch tips back. You can also make the tree fuller by taking out half of an unbranched tip.

Do not prune spruce in late summer or early fall. This can encourage growth that won’t have time to harden off before winter.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Trim Spruce Trees to Keep Them Small?

It is far better to select a dwarf variety of spruce rather than planting a tall tree and try to keep it small by trimming. If you must cut back for size, do not cut into the hardened older wood. Spruce will not regrow shoots from old wood.

Can You Propagate the Spruce Tree Clippings?

Spruce trees propagate in the wild by seeds, and this is one way a homeowner can grow spruce as well. But it’s also possible to propagate spruce trees from tip cuttings, taken in late summer or early fall. Dip the ends in rooting hormone then “plant” in moist sandy loam.

Teo Spengler

Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.