Cloud Pruning for Beginners

Lest there be any misconception, the beginner is me. So if you are in need of expert advice, this is probably not the place to linger. Cloud pruning is highly fashionable at the moment, but not being a person of fashion, I hadn’t given it much thought. On the other hand, I did have a problem:This is a very ancient juniper – I have no idea which species – growing on the terrace. Over the years it has grown massively out of proportion, and is pushing the rather nice dwarf rhododendron in front of it further and further away from its roots.It also has a lot of dead wood hanging around. Juniper is not very pleasant to work with, so it has just been roughly cut back over the years. As with all badly-pruned shrubs, it has become congested and unsightly. I had more or less decided to cut the whole thing out and start again, when I found myself inspired by this post from Le Jardin d’Oscar (found via Jordan’s blogroll) where Oscar has cloud-pruned a juniper. His follow-up post is here. The before and after pictures are impressive, but, alas, Oscar does not show how he did it (although I like the birdsong). So, on advice from Dr Google, I evolved the following plan:

  • Cut back dead wood to expose elegant trunk
  • Choose  three or four of the best branches for the ‘clouds’
  • Cut out the rest.

Following Uncle Hamish’s advice, I start at the bottom. But, as they say in this part of the world, “the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay”. The elegant trunk is anything but… and as for ‘choosing three or four branches – there’s just one tangle of compacted woodwork, and I have no idea what leads where. I have almost decided to give up when I notice there are one or two places where new shoots have broken from old wood. This suggests that even if I make a complete mess, there is a chance that new growth will hide it eventually. And even if it is not elegant, it may be picturesque – by Linnie’s definition at least.So I take my courage in both hands and start making holes. There’s no going back now. But it’s a long, slow job trying to clean back the branches I think I want to keep into the central tangle of dead needles and dead wood. I’m compiling a short list of candidate branches, gradually cutting away the less promising ones.That’s the south-facing side cleared and outlined. But the north-facing side and the middle is just a dense mass, and I am going to have to snip it out an inch or two at a time:So, after a lot of hard work, this is the result. It’s far from perfect, but I’m not displeased:I’ve deliberately left rather more ‘clouds’ than is ideal. For a start, I suspect the frost will damage some of them, and secondly it will take a week or two of wind and rain to see how the whole structure settles down. So I’ll no doubt continue further snipping.Smoke from burning juniper is wonderfully fragrant. I only wish I had a salmon to hang in it.

Update June 2013:
The cloud-pruned juniper is now into its second growing season following my radical surgery, and I’ve been working on it from time to time. I’ve reduced the branches with clouds on the end to a manageable 15, and continued to prise away bits of tangled wood from the central mass. It’s never going to be elegant, but I’m quite pleased that it’s worked at all:P1010606 I took this photogaph before shaping the clouds – using a pair of kitchen scissors. It was a choice between trimming them into an arrowhead shape (as Oscar does – see link above) or into a rounded shape. I chose the latter, because it looks better on the thin, straggly branches.

19 thoughts on “Cloud Pruning for Beginners

  1. I could have lobbed a salmon down, would have got to you in no time ith these gales.

    Ouch to juniper pruning, a fearsome beast. Looks like you’ve tackled it with gusto.

    I fell into a juniper at work today, well it’s Orkney, I tripped over it. Spiky little beastie. Must be attacking me as it knew you’d given on of it’s rellies a hard haircut.

    • Hello Fay, I should have ordered the salmon from you in advance. I’m cursing myself. At least you tripped over the juniper. I was worried the gale had picked you off your feet and thrown you into it.

  2. Oh my gosh at first I thought you were somehow pruning with a computer.

    When I was a child there was a huge row of those horribly prickly junipers growing across in front of the house– for some reason. I had to weed them and I almost still have scars. At least emotional ones. (I wonder now if those plants are a Scottish import?) But for your sake and the beautiful stones’ sake (and in honor of Uncle Hamish may he rest in peace) I won’t suggest dynamite or that kind of thing. I do agree that it’s a shame to waste the fire. Did you consider smoked squirrel?

    • Linnie, do catch up….Cloud computing is SO yesterday. Cloud pruning OTOH is all the rage…..
      Yes, Junipers do not do the skin any good at all. I am having a hard time typing, thanks to all the prickles and blotches, which explains the unusual lack of acerbity and remarkable shortness of reply.
      Nevertheless, despite the pain, I have tracked you down an easily-assimilated scholarly paper about the origins of junipers, which has no mention of Scotland:

      • PS – You still haven’t got enough room for extended comments on your blog. I wished finally to put to rest Alberto’s misconceptions about my gender, but there was no room!

      • “Easily-assimilated.” Right. You really poked in dark corners to find THAT one Kininvie. But I am sorry you are suffering. How annoying to be handicapped so you are hardly able to fight back– I mean respond. I will try to be helpful with a suggestion about the juniper project. If it doesn’t cloud up, so to speak, as intended, you could go full ahead on a topiary. It could pretty easily be trimmed to represent an international corporation I would think… Really I just hope you feel better soon. (Oh go ahead and hit the champagne box, I won’t tell.)

        • Dear Linnie, I am sorry you think Champagne comes in boxes. Perhaps in your part of the world it does? If so, I am not surprised you have to compensate for your grim existence with baby showers and line dancing.

          • I must have used the wrong word. Is it a PALLET of bottles rather than a box of bottles? Really you must learn to do things for the sake of accomplishment and not just for the immediate gratification of external rewards. But I see you are feeling better.

  3. I got it MR. Kininvie. When I asked (ages ago) about your gender you didn’t want to answer so I thought of you as a lady. Now I’ve got it but it feels weird to read your blog with a man’s voice, I’ll get over it. Anyway, as we are coming out: is Kininvie a name? I mean a real one? Just to know.

    But let’s get back to your poor juniper… I think you made a good job, the best you could do. I don’t like junipers for the same reason of Linniew (my parents use to have 2 big ones in the garden: a magnet for balls and toys…) and I don’t understand this trend of cloud pruning at all. I prefer the waving hedges that you have in Northern Europe, I wish I had one of those.
    But your result is impressive so keep going, I bet if it won’t get over the hard pruning and winter you can cut it at the base and make some room for other plants.

    • Well I’ve never really understood the lust for grasses – so there we go. I like cloud pruning, especially when you see it on espaliered shrubs. I think I might have a go at my pyracantha, which is a menace when it is just pruned normally. Have a look at Mossy’s cloud-pruned pyracantha here: But it is obviously something that needs practice. You are right, if the juniper does not survive, I’ll cut it out – as I was going to originally.

      You’ve had one revelation about me today. That’s quite enough.

      • You are right, I’ll wait for the name thing, that would be too much emotions in just one day.

        I think this Mossy has a beautiful garden but as cloud pruning it feels so far from me. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good job, your juniper is better now than earlier, that’s for sure.

  4. How extraordinary. I’m coming to your site to read the comments as much as the blog. I mean cloud pruning is a fascinating subject and I’m interested in how it progresses…. But the comments are the thing. You’ve obviously caused a great stooshie about subjects other than gardens!

    • Ach, it’s just Linnie and I indulging in the usual bit of banter – but the more folks who join in the better. Alberto has been subject to certain – ah – delusions ever since he became excited about the thought I went chain-sawing with no clothes on, and I didn’t wish to spoil the fantasy

  5. Great job! I’ve a similar problem in my own garden with two giant conifers and two giant junipers. I’d rather nog chop them completely as they provide good fun the birds, but man they drain the light! Couldn’t find many examples of this so thanks for sharing!

  6. I know this is an old post, but I think you did an amazing job on this juniper! When your trimming away first revealed those gnarled branches I knew you had it. Hope it, and yourself, are still doing well ~ thank you for sharing this story 🙂

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