trim a shrub into a small tree

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I absolutely LOVE turning my larger shrubs into petite little trees; they’re just so elegant! But getting an overgrown shrub into a single-stem (or close to it) can be a laborious task. In this post, I cover my tips.

How to Prune a Shrub Into a Small Tree

Tips for Trimming a Large Bush into a Small Tree

The main difference: a trunk!

My camellias in the front yard were nice and full all over, so they were prime candidates for this shrub-into-tree business. I included a video below to show you how I did one of them (the other was already shaped the previous day). It was tough to get footage on this one; to my surprise, my phone got too hot in the sun and shut off while I was filming! I managed to give it a break and captured the end though. ;) Maybe that should have been a good indicator that I should have also gone inside? Hah.

Anyway, select a variety of shrub that has a nice strong stem to make a single trunk in the middle. You’re going to want to trim the other stems back, but be sure to continue reading my other tips to make it easier and keep the plant healthy!

Use a Battery-Powered Hedge Trimmer

For this, a reliable hedge trimmer makes a lot less work. It’s not that you can’t do it by hand, but it’s a 1000x harder! A battery-powered one is even better, because you’re going to be moving all around, above, and below the shrub to get the right shape, and getting tangled in a cord or dealing with gas is less ideal.

STIHL battery powered hedge trimmer

So, of course, I used my STIHL battery-powered hedge trimmer. I’ve reviewed my set of STIHL battery-powered tools when they began sponsoring the UDH last year, and they’re still my fave!

set of STIHL battery powered tools for the yard

What I like most about battery systems like this is that you can usually pop out a battery and insert it into the very next tool you need (like the blower), and you don’t have to spend extra time hunting around for “this battery goes with that tool” and so on. Having things that all work together and don’t run on cords is a huge upgrade from the hodge-podge mix of refurbished stuff I had before.

Step back and check your progress

Shaping a shrub is more of an easy-does-it type of task. Make some cuts, step back, make some more, step back, and so on. Be sure you go all around the shrub to check how it looks from multiple angles (if we’d just focused on how it looked from the street, it could have looked weird from our doorstep, which is what we see often and that would bug me).

trim the tree into a rounded shape and avoid cutting back too much foliage

The 2/3 Rule

When trimming up a shrub, it’s not only nice (aesthetically) to keep a good shape and to step back often, but you should also be careful not to trim off too much too fast. I had a very overgrown and well-established shrub, but I still didn’t want to cut off too much; that would make it hard for my camellias to recover, and the upper foliage becomes more crucial when they can’t rely on the soil-touching branches for extra nutrients. Only prune off the bottom 1/3 of the entire plant at a given time and then allow the shrub to recover for a year. Even if that means not cutting everything down to a single trunk (you can do that the following year).

trim the base of the shrub to form a trunk

With a little patience, you should now have the start of a tree that can be shaped going forward to make a trunk instead of many stems.

But wait, there’s more

I mentioned that STIHL provided me with these yard tools last year, and this year, they’ve upped the ante with two new pieces of equipment that are going to help us out a TON.

Stihl mower in storage

Remember when I said our gas-powered mower broke? We had a bit of a rough start to spring with the grass getting massively overgrown in the front and back (but thank goodness we’ve worked so hard to get a lush lawn in the back or it would have been full of weeds like the front!).

Stella in the grass

Dun-duh-da-dun! We have a spiffy new battery one from STIHL.

STIHL new battery mower in the back yard

It’s a bit quieter, but wildly powerful; the grass had grown super tall in the back and the old mower would have required us to trim it all down before mowing multiple times. With this one, we set it once and it ATE up the tall grass without missing a beat.

The part is that it folds up and can be tucked away in the shed very easily (quick little video below for you on that!).

Stella is WAY happier now that the grass no longer towers over her!

Stella in the back yard after mowing

The only “con” so far compared to our old one is that it’s not self-propelling, but there’s no running out to refuel and it’s a much easier startup (button instead of pulling), which is usually my excuse to turn things over to K. I will probably always hate mowing, but this one has far fewer excuse-providing-obstacles to just get it done.

STIHL battery powered mower

As far as the second thing? BAM: a new pressure washer! I got SO MANY jokes when we hand-washed Ruby about why we even bothered and should “just use a pressure washer”. The simplest answer was, of course, that we didn’t have one (plus the property had no hose or water supply at that spot near the camper, but that’s another thing entirely). So now, I have a better option to get it sqeaky clean! ? I’ll have a separate post all about this tool and what we do with it (both Ruby-wise and around the home… it’s super useful to have for all kinds of outdoor cleaning).

SITHL pressure washer for Ruby's Revival

Don’t forget to pin!

trim shrubs into small trees

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  1. Wild video ! Never saw anyone move so fast and decisively with a powered hedge trimmer! But you didn’t end up with a small tree (in my opinion)—just a smaller neater shrub.

    1. First step! Can’t lop off too much for the health of the plant (I mentioned a 2/3 rule above). Once a little time passes again, I’ll be able to lop off a few more branches from the bottom & so on. Doing too much too fast might shock the camellias and they give off such lovely blooms!

    1. I wish I had your same enthusiasm for it, but now that I have some earbuds that can crank the tunes, I will probably enjoy it a little more. :)

  2. Oooh, we have camellias, and I’d love to do this to one of ours! The rest of them are a little… sad looking. (By a little, I mean a lot, a whole lot.) We have an electric hedge trimmer, and I love it! We have a horrid plant we need to kill in the front of the house. That’s our next big project.

    1. Good luck in turning your sad camellias into happy ones! Ours seem VERY happy with their new cut (and we cut them into tree-like shapes more and more each year… I need to update this post with the way I trimmed them this past fall!).

      1. I’m not sure they’ll make it, some of them. I don’t know a lot about caring for them. The former gardener for this home told me the former homeowners had him move them several times. Maybe I’ll hack away at one of ours tomorrow. It’s supposed to be nice and low humidity tomorrow morning. There is only one plant that is healthy enough to trim. The other two are really puny. Do you have any care advice for them?

        1. I haven’t had to care for mine much, but that’s not a bad idea! I’ll add it to my to-do list for future posts. Thanks!