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Japanese Willow Pruning – How To Cut Back A Japanese Willow Tree

Japanese Willow Pruning – How To Cut Back A Japanese Willow Tree


By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer

In recent years Japanese willows, especially the dappled varieties with white to pink variegation, have become extremely popular landscape plants. Like most willows, they also grow extremely fast. As a garden center worker and landscaper, I have sold and planted hundreds of these trees. However, with every single one, I have warned the homeowner that it will not stay small and tidy for long. Continue reading to learn how to prune Japanese willows.

About Japanese Willow Pruning

All too often homeowners realize that cute little willow with the pink and white foliage can quickly become an 8 to 10 foot (2-3 m.) monster. As they grow and age, they can also lose a lot of the unique foliage colors that drew your eye to them in the first place. Fortunately, with regular pruning and trimming, the size and shape can be maintained. Pruning Japanese willows will also encourage new colorful growth.

A very forgiving plant, if necessary, you can cut back a Japanese willow to the height of about 12 inches (31 cm.) to let it rejuvenate and to try to keep a better handle on its future size and shape. With that being said, do not panic or stress too much about pruning a Japanese willow. If you accidentally cut off a wrong branch or trim it at the wrong time, you will not hurt it.

Even so, there are some recommended guidelines for Japanese willow pruning.

How to Cut Back a Japanese Willow Tree

Pruning of old, damaged, dead, or crossing branches to increase sunlight or air flow is generally done in late winter when the willow is dormant and the spring catkins have not yet formed. Cut these branches right back to their base. At this point, it is alright to remove about 1/3 of the branches with clean, sharp pruners or loppers.

Midsummer is an ideal time for trimming Japanese willows to shape, control size, and rejuvenate their variegation when the white and pink coloring of dappled willows tends to fade. However, some light to heavy trimming will cause the plant to send out colorful pink and white new growth.

It is usually recommended that you cut back a Japanese willow by about 30 to 50% but, as stated above, if the size and shape has really gotten out of hand, you can cut the whole plant back to about a foot (31 cm.) tall.

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How to Prune a Varigated Willow Bush

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Variegated willows (Salix integra "Hakuro Nishiki") are commonly referred to as dappled willow and are widely used by homeowners for year-round interest in the landscape. This dwarf willow displays eye-catching pink spring foliage that turns to an ivory white and green. Yellow fall leaves are followed by red winter branches. Pruning is done to promote vibrant color, health and to shape. Variegated willows respond exceedingly well to light or heavy pruning making them an excellent candidate for a full haircut or just a light trim while the tree is dormant. This willow is hardy in Sunset's Climate Zones 3 through 7 and 14 through 17.

Fill a bucket with hydrogen peroxide. Place clippers and loppers in the bucket to sterilize them. Allow clippers to soak for 30 minutes. Dry completely using a clean towel.

Develop a pruning plan by taking some time to investigate the tree, Decide how you would like the tree to look and visualize the steps necessary to achieve the desired size.

Carefully inspect the tree for dead, diseased or broken limbs. Diseased or dead wood will be brittle and brown, not flexible and green. Cut back branches to the main stem being careful not to leave a stub. Use a step stool to reach the branches, if necessary.

Identify branches that are rubbing or crossing each other. Carefully choose to remove the branch that is not growing well with natural shape of the tree and leave the other one.

Cut back any branches that are not in line with the natural shape of the tree

Encourage healthy new growth by trimming one-third of the branches to the ground each year.

Cut the willow down to 12 inches off the ground once every four years. This is done to promote health, longevity and an attractive form.

Discard of all clippings and leaves.

  • Take your time when you prune and step back frequently to be sure that you are not over-pruning or straying from your desired shape.

Susan Patterson is a health and gardening advocate. She is a Master Gardener, Certified Metabolic Typing Advisor and a Certified Health Coach with vast experience working with organic gardening and nutrition. Her passions include sustainable living, organic foods and functional fitness. Patterson has been writing and presenting on health and gardening topics for 10 years.


A Weeping Form

The weeping willow (Salix babylonica) is an often-planted member of the willow family, growing to a mature height of about 50 feet and producing branches that droop gracefully as they grow. It is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plant hardiness zones 6 through 9. The tree has mostly upright branches when young as it grows, the branches arch toward the ground, a habit that may be prevented if the tree is prune regularly.

Train a young weeping willow tree to a single trunk during its first one or two years by removing its extra main stems, or extra trunks, in early spring. Allow other branches to grow naturally without pruning until they reach a length you find pleasing. If branches eventually become too long, touching the ground and interfering with other plantings or foot traffic, you could cut them back in late winter or early spring.