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How to Prune Incense Cedar

By Malia Marin ; Updated September 21, 2017

Incense cedar is a tall, column shaped evergreen tree, native to California. In its natural habitat, it grows slowly to a height of 70 to 100 feet. When planted in the landscape, it commonly attains heights of 40 to 60 feet, but is only 8-12 feet wide. This grand tree, often planted in parks, is too large to grow in the average backyard, unless it is pruned to control its height. Incense cedar is an excellent plant to use as a hedge or windbreak, in less spacious landscapes, because its dense, fragrant needles extend the ground.

Prune the tree tops to the desired height for a hedge or windbreak, using loppers or a pruning saw, in early to mid summer. Do this when trees are young for a more uniform hedge. If you are pruning older trees, trim them gradually over several seasons. Snip the branches at a 45-degree angle, so that the exposed cut will shed water. Wear gloves to protect your hands from incense cedar’s sharp thorns, and pile your clippings onto a tarp spread out on the ground for easy cleanup.

Shear back the side branches in early spring or summer, starting at the bottom of the tree. Use loppers or pruning shears to cut branch tips back to the next fork with a green shoot or swelling bud. For larger branches, use a pruning saw. Remove only 8-12 inches of growth per season from the sides of the tree. This will result in a dense, even hedge.

Trim back any shoots that grow higher than the rest, to shape the hedge. Once the needles grow back after the initial pruning, you will be able to see if the hedge is evenly clipped. This will be all the annual maintenance your incense cedar hedge will need.


Things You Will Need

  • Work gloves
  • Pruning saw
  • Loppers
  • Pruning shears
  • Tarp


  • Avoid pruning incense cedar after June or July, to allow time for the wounds to heal before winter.
  • Look for dwarf incense cedar cultivars, such as 'Compacta', which can be trained into a good hedge with little pruning, or `Aureovariegata', which features mottled, bright yellow foliage.
  • For a clipped specimen tree with a formal appearance, try the cultivar 'Columnaris'.
  • Plant incense cedar to provide winter forage for birds and other wildlife, which eat the seeds released from the small cones.


  • Locate incense cedar away from walks, patios and children's play areas because their thorns can be hazardous.

About the Author


Malia Marin is a landscape designer and freelance writer, specializing in sustainable design, native landscapes and environmental education. She holds a Masters in landscape architecture, and her professional experience includes designing parks, trails and residential landscapes. Marin has written numerous articles, over the past ten years, about landscape design for local newspapers.