Updated: Apr 16, 2020
Grow it for a few years and then chop it down to 4 foot. In fact, if you wanted to, you could cut it off at ground level.
"How do I prune my tree? I want to create a screen," is probably the most common question we get asked, either by email, at a Flower Show, or over the phone. It's a really good question, and one that takes a little imagination to understand the answer.
This is a quick guide to creating a screen. Please do read our Training and Pruning page in the Help and Advice section for much more detail.
Looking for a recommended Euc for screening? Go to our Shop Page and select an option under "Filter by Purpose" on the left of the screen.
Thinking about growing in a pot? Skip to the bottom.
Eucalyptus are very prune-able. Think about them growing in the wilds of Australia; lightning storms, bush fires and rampaging clans of hungry Koalas all pose a threat to the Antipodean's favourite tree. As a result, they have (on the whole) developed the ability to bounce back after a serious pruning event.
All of those situations sound rather traumatic, but fear not. Drastic pruning may seem like a horrible thing to do to your prized Eucalypt, but you're just tapping into the natural process of regeneration. Most Eucalyptus sprout way more stems after it's been pruned in this manner; like the mythological Greek Hydra sprouting more heads after you've chopped one off!
By pruning, pollarding, or coppicing your tree, you're helping it to grow into the shape that will best suit your requirements, and therefore you'll want it to stick around for longer. No one likes a Euc that has overgrown it's welcome.
Before doing any work, the stem of your tree must be at least 5cm diameter (16cm circumference) in order to withstand the pruning event.
Measure around the circumference of your tree trunk with a soft tape or piece of string at the height you're going to make the pollarding/coppicing cut.
"I'm all ready to unleash my inner Koala. What do I do next?"
A typical request we get is to train a screening tree to hide a nosey neighbours upstairs window. To get the foliage quickly up to that height, you wont want to cut off too much in one go (your idea of 'too much', and my idea of 'too much' are probably a bit different, but bear with me here).
Ideally, you would grow your tree up so the stem is nice and thick - see note above - and then chop it off cleanly between 3-4 foot above the soil.
If you chicken out and pollard the tree any taller than that, you're not helping the tree to quickly create that 7ft tall screen you so desperately desire. For some reason, it doesn't trigger that phoenix-like regeneration mechanism and you'll most likely end up with really bare pole (we've done the research so you don't have to). 3-4ft is the best height to pollard your tree to and with a little TLC, the tree will produce a new crown of branches over the next year.
"Wait!" you say, "I want my foliage to start at ground level and what I've got now looks like a shrub-on-a-stick"
Shrub-on-a-stick is a very desirable tree shape! But you want to grow something shrubby and close to the ground? You can also train your Euc as a hedge-screen or a bush. In order to encourage this habit, you will need to coppice your tree. Please check first on the individual species page on our website that your tree will respond to coppicing; it needs to have a lignotuber (lumpy growth at the base). See our lignotuber info post here.
When coppicing a tree, you cut off all of the growth (yes really) from about 10cm/4 inches above the height of the soil i.e. everything your gut instinct is telling you not to do!
But please make sure you don't damage the lignotuber at the base of the tree - be very precise and careful, don't tear the bark or rip off straggly bits of wood.
The above technique is also good for growing multi-stem trees that start at ground level, rather than the shrub-on-a-stick look that pollarding will achieve.
Major pruning work like this is carried out after mid-March and before mid-to-end of April.
See our post on National Eucalyptus Day UK (18th March) and why St Sheelah should mean something to you.
Do not be convinced by your Arboriculturist that pruning work should be carried out later in the year. They may be your dads-mate's-friend-from-golf-who's-very-knowledgeable, and they probably would do a good job, but they will kill your tree if it is hard-pruned at any other time of year.
Video: Example of 12 months growth post-pruning with Eucalyptus archeri. This tree was pollarded to approx 2.5 feet above the compost; all top growth and side branches were removed. The video shows the mass of foliage that subsequently sprouted from the stem. Hilary points to the pruning scar in among the new growth. Normally we do not advise keeping screening trees in a pot, but this one was for sale!
How to pollard/coppice the tree.
Have you ticked all of the boxes?
- Your tree trunk is 5cm or more in diameter at the point you're pollarding or coppicing it,
- It's between mid-March and end of April,
- It's not raining. This helps to stop your pruning cuts getting infected; they need to dry out.
- You have measured the height that you want to prune it down to. (Like, really, you've thought about this? Maybe take it off in small stages rather than all in one go? Don't worry, it will grow back!)
You will need:
- sharp loppers, a pruning saw, or a chainsaw for larger jobs.
- fertiliser (not manure)
- bark or leaf mulch
Pro tip: don't hold your breath and close your eyes. You're handling sharp equipment.
1) Decide if you are going to lightly prune, pollard down to 3-4ft, or coppice to just above the ground.
2) If it's a big branch; prune off some of the length to lighten the load on the branch you're removing
3) To remove large branches (if part of your plan); use loppers or a pruning saw to cut it down to a few inches above the finished height; Euc bark has a habit of tearing, which it will do if you take off all the weight in one go,
4) tidy up the pruning cuts by cutting off the remaining few inches using a saw or another smooth cut with the loppers.
- If you're pruning back a crown, you should leave 'pegs' where the branches were (not necessary if you've pollarded it down to a height where there were no branches)
- If you're coppicing using a saw or chainsaw; make one smooth cut to finish.
5) remove and dispose of pruned foliage and wood as desired (and legally!)
6) remove any weeds and grass for 1m diameter around the trunk. Use 'Grazon' to kill weeds or 'Kerb' to kill grass (available to trade only) as per manufacturers instructions. Or, hand pull/lightly hoe weeds and grass for an organic alternative.
7) feed your tree.
8) spread a thick layer of mulch (no manure, too high in nitrogen) for a 1m diameter around the trunk, but do not let the mulch mound up against the stem. It should look like a polo mint; with a hole in the middle.
9) make yourself a cup of tea (or something stronger), to help you get over this traumatic experience!
10) Now wait. In about 6-12 weeks, your bald friend will start sprouting little pin-head-sized buds directly on the stem or branches. Don't touch them!
These buds are the start of your screening foliage; they will grow over the coming year and their combined mass will produce the screening effect you're looking for.
Here's what you DON'T do:
Let me tell you a true story.
At a Flower Show, a lovely customer spoke to Charlie about pruning her tree. Charlie gave her the advice as detailed above, but the young lady seemed confused....
Thankfully, she repeated back her understanding of Charlie's instructions, "so, I cut the tree off here (gestures to approx. 4ft up the trunk), throw away the trunk and the roots, and then plant the branches in the ground?"
Good grief woman. Someone get the smelling salts!
By all means, use the pruned foliage in flower arrangements, Christmas wreaths, chicken bedding or even to dye fabric, but under no circumstances do you transplant the off-cuts and destroy the root ball.
If in doubt, ask!
Here's our Quick Pruning Guide (filmed on a very windy day) that demonstrates the above methods.
A cautionary note about growing in pots.
Eucs much prefer growing in the ground where they have access to water and nutrients on demand.
If you're trying to grow a Gum Tree in a pot for screening purposes, you may not find you are as successful as if you were growing in the ground.
Remember you will be controlling the height if you are pruning it as described above, so growing in a pot is not necessary if you're worried about it growing too tall.
Growing in a pot is fine if you really, really want to. Growing in an Airpot is the best way forward as the pot design encourages healthy root growth. Eucs in traditional pots become 'bored' and lack of root stimulation means the foliage may not grow back after pruning as quickly/healthily/at all compared to their planted-out cousins. It is essential to water your potted tree at least every few days, and feed/pot-on when required.
Author and blog image credits: Charlie Hartigan, Grafton Nursery