pruning smoke bush into smoke tree

flowergirl78(5b)February 5, 2013

I have a purple smoke bush that was here when we got our house in 2006. I have hated it for years because it was planted not 4 feet from a lilac bush which it towers over and crowds into. It just looks ugly and awkward in the space. I butchered it one year hoping to keep it smaller. I found out later it loved my harsh treatment and responded with more vigorous growth. I'm realizing now that my hate might actually be because I have misunderstood this shrub. So, my last effort at making amends with it is to prune back the top growth to match the height of the lilac bush it is married to, but am worried that more growth will be stimulated where I prune (at desired height)- anyone have any help on that? Also, I'd really like to prune it into a tree form. This bush has SO many thick stems growing from soil, how do I go about doing this? Do I cut back AT ground level or do I cut back BELOW ground level? Just don't want a "Medusa" effect to happen and have 5 limbs grow to every 1 I cut back! Any help/suggestions are greatly appreciated! :)

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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

listen to me.. i will yell...GET RID OF IT!!!

YOU CUT IT TO THE GROUND.. AND ... oops.. it exploded with new growth..

shave its top off.. and guess where ti is going ot explode with new growth..

at the ground???? .. noooooo at the height cut ...

and then next year.. being unable to support that growth.. it will fall over and crush the lilac ..

please .. its a pest.. improperly sited.. and a monster..

exactly what are you trying to save???..

you said you already have a HATE on for it.. channel that hate.. cut it to the ground.. and apply roundup to the cut stump ..

and enter a stress free zone ..

or.. do what you want.. and refer back to my thoughts.. in a year..


    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 6:58PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

Given its location ("not 4 feet from a lilac bush which it towers over and crowds into") and its previous contributions to your peace of mind ("hated it for years" and "worried"), I'd go with Ken's suggestion (properly applied glyphosate). However, if you are determined to keep it, for now, properly ID it (species, at least) and give us some pictures. Maybe we'll still say, "Nuke it!", but who knows, without a picture or two.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 8:07PM
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laceyvail(6A, WV)

Purple smoke bush responds magnificently when cut back--you get a huge flush of new growth with those gorgeous purple leaves. No "smoke" however on new growth. Many many people treat it this way always, cutting it quite close to the ground. In most parts of zone 5, it experiences considerable winter dieback, so is best treated as above, certainly not a plant to try to make a tree of.

If you don't like it, get rid of it.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 6:25AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

BTW.. i was cooking dinner when i typed the above... some real interpretational typing there.. lol ...

i made this mistake.. planting one 3 feet from the foundation.. and under the eave ...

and once it got to the eave.. it was a nightmare ...

i did end up killing it [i think].. due to poor siting ... after i did try to prune at height.. and when that didnt work.. down to the ground.. but with no insult to the roots.. it was back in the eave in a year ... it was a beast ...

i cant remember if i killed it.. or moved.. lol ...

as i said.. do whatever you want ... you cant kill ... and you can try something else next year .. or in fall ... i learned thru experimenting.. you should too ...

good luck


    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 8:53AM
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wow, thanks to everyone who responded (& so quickly too!) I totally agree that ultimately, it needs to go. The only reason I hesitate at this time is b/c it IS a crucial screen for our back yard. Once we've budgeted for a mature planting to replace it, that baby is gone. For now, I'm just trying to make the best of this beast. To laceyvail though, I have read in multiple places that this can be trained into a tree form. (from, "Purple smoke bush can be trained as a standard and used as a tree.") To Brandon7, I will try to get some pics but being Feb, you're only going to get to see the site and form of the bush... for what it's worth, I'm pretty sure it's the 'Royal Purple' variety. To Ken, (I laughed so hard at your first posting) when the time does come to get rid of it, will using round up or glyphosate ruin the site for future plantings there? Something HAS to be in that spot if we want any kind of privacy. Still holding out hope that someone will give tips on how to go about training into tree form! ;)

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 10:08AM
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Here's a pic of the big guy... I guess it was planted a little farther than I initially thought from the lilac... nevertheless, I still think they look silly that close to each other. You know, the thought just occurred to me that maybe the lilac is the one that should go since it's not that tall of a screening hedge. Maybe I should put a fast growing arborvitae in it's place... at least the arborvitae's height would balance out the smoke bush's size a little better?! Thoughts on this??? (please be gentle...) oh fyi: it's not in the pic but immediately to the left of the lilac is our house. The lilac is slightly in front of a window. Thanks for your input everyone! :)

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 1:34PM
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...stupid technology... maybe this time the pic will stay attached...

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 1:38PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

ok.. ready???

you said: Once we've budgeted for a mature planting to replace it, that baby is gone.

===>> i say no.. do not waste money on whatever you call 'mature' stock .... if you spend more than $20 bucks on this.. sorry.. you are nuts ...

those utilities back there.. thats the corner of your lot .. yes ...??

measure 10 feet across the back.. and ten feet down the line.. then come in 10 feet in both directions .. and plant a $20 4 foot redbud.. or something... a real tree.. not a shrub you want to be a tree ... [in this case.. it much easier.. if you start with a 2 foot plant.. and train it from the get go.. rather than trying to make grandpa.. what he isnt already.. old dog.. new tricks type of thing ...]

back to the cheap new tree ...and in 3 years.. when it has started blocking the view.. get rid of this thing ...

your first mistake.. is thinking the sight line block HAS TO GO ON THE PROPERTY LINE .. nope ...

oh carp.. what is that in the bottom right of the pic??.. your deck??? whats is your yard.. 7 feet to the property line???

and NO!!!! ... RUp become inert on contact with the soil ... period ... besides.. you are going to use about a quarter ounce to kill that stump ... ask.. and we can deal with that then ...

give us a pic of the whole yard.. and we can help you with the view.. inside any budget.. pshaw on spending so much dough.. you knead to plan for that contingency .. [see what i did there???] ...


ps: ID two or three branches that tend to overhang the lilac.. and cut those at ground level.. and be done with pruning.. do NOT give it a haircut ... and then ignore the lilac.. you cant kill it if you tried ... HEY... FOR FREE ... get in there.. and dig out a couple lilac suckers.. and start moving them down the property line.. and make a free block ... new post if you want directions on that ... i 'collect' lilac.. by knocking on doors and asking if it can harvest a sucker or two.. and have never been told no ... though i have gotten a lot of strange looks.. lol ... I have about a dozen different ones now ... KEY ===>> FREE !!!! .. i think you can work that into the budget ...

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 1:53PM
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Are you serious, lilacs are that tough to kill?!?! Dang-it!! That is NOT good news to me. I'd make a lilac hedge if that particular hedge were larger, but it's not, so I'd like to eventually get rid of it, too! ...if that's possible!

okay, my yard... the houses in the pic face east to west (the back of their homes are looking to the west) MY house faces north to south- I was on my deck (on south side) taking a pic of the bushes to the east- our yard goes back farther to the south-- make sense?!?! So yeah, not much room to work with on that side- but I do get what you're saying with getting a young TREE vs trying to work with an old bush! Thanks!

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 6:43PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

"(L)ilacs are that tough to kill?!?! Dang-it!! That is NOT good news to me."

Not tough to kill at all with a few drops of concentrated glyphosate (active ingredient in most RoundUp formulations) applied to the freshly cut stumps at the proper time. Fall, before leaves change color and drop, is probably the ideal best time, but it's also completely do-able in summer.

In case you still question the safety of applying glyphosate, although what Ken said may not be completely technically accurate, it's a pretty close approximation to what happens. Glyphosate/RoundUp, applied in small quantities, is an extremely safe chemical, and much more so than most commonly used household chemicals. It's MUCH MUCH less harmful to your soil/planting site than almost anything else you could use (especially some of the so-called "organic" herbicides).

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 8:05PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

you kill any shrub as noted .. cut to ground .. apply roundup .. period ...

both can literally be cut to the ground .. and will be as big ... inside 2 years.. because there is no insult to the roots ... in my book.. its one of the definitions of being a 'shrub' ...

the only shrub that would die.. is one you paid $100 for .. lol .. suicide..

i have no clue what your words mean in describing your yard.. how about you post more pix.. if you want to go forward ...

this is my best suggestion.. pull out the deck chair.. plop yourself down.. and define.. with specificity.. at what height you need to block the view.. i will bet.. it is not at zero to 3 feet.. so we move from shrubs that clump at the ground.. to small trees ... which will leave you some grass for bocci ...

then once you get height.. you go to every window in the houe.. and look out... and start defining where a tree needs to go.. to block the view to each important window.. you wont be staring out all of them.. etc .. if you have someone else outside.. you can have them put in a marker for a spot ..

then go back to the deck. plop you self [???] back down.. and decide if any of those markers can be moved .. since a tree is not a thin cylinder.. but wide at height.. so that you might get by with condensing the number you need ... to block two views ...

and if it took me all summer.. and lots of adult beverages to figure this all out.. so be it.. because there is a second tree planting time in fall ... if you secure the stock in summer... but NEVER plant trees in summer...

this is as far as i can go w/o a pic ....


    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 8:16PM
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Alright, thanks guys. Ken, I'm too embarrassed of my yard to post anymore pics... I know, I know, that sounds vain, but I'm all too aware of how much is wrong with our yard. I was trying to explain that those electrical boxes were on the SIDE of our property line, which is why it's not very deep- we have a deeper back yard, but that was a shot towards the side of our property, not the back. Anyway, I really do appreciate you guys taking the time to give me feedback on my posting- my first garden forum posting ever! I guarantee I will be using your tips both about Glyphosate/Round Up and about trimming! Thanks again! :)

    Bookmark   February 7, 2013 at 9:39AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

well spectacular.. if thats the side yard.. and all you want is a curtain to hide you on the deck.. and dont care about the loss of lawn ... then try Thuja occidentalis 'Degroot's Spire'

here is a pic of mine.. about 12 years old.. 2 feet wide.. and 12 feet tall.. guess its annual growth rate.. lol ...

link below to more pix ....

removal of an occasional duplicate leader ... never shear them.. etc ... [you can actually see a duplicate on mine.. right behind the blue concolor]

you will have to verify they are zone appropriate for you..

and be careful digging with the utilities there ...

we can provide planting instructions..

and dont buy bigger than 2 foot ...


Here is a link that might be useful: link

    Bookmark   February 7, 2013 at 11:50AM
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Thanks Ken! Yes, that's exactly it, just want a screen for our deck area.

Great pic! Love Thujas ...most all have such an awesome fast growth rate!

I just surveyed our yard today (such a beautiful day out!) and have a lot of good ideas. That smoke bush is so out of

oh, meant to ask you and Brandon, there are some smoke bush limbs that are a bit far from the main stem area (~6in maybe) and was wondering, if I prune those back to ground (yes, i know... will just be a temporary -very temporary- fix I realize) and pour some RUp/Glyphostuff on just those stumps, will it travel down to kill the whole bush, or just the stems I pour it on?

    Bookmark   February 7, 2013 at 3:51PM
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lola-lemon(5b East WA)

I thought I might just add this-- but I love my smoke tree. Grace.
She puts on quite a show and everyone loves her color and wants to know what it is.
Across the street, my neighbors have the one that is the purple black -probably royal purple- growing as triple branched tree too. Looks very good. It;s very tall.
I've read if you want them to smoke, you need to feed and water them very little. Too much water and food gives you bush growth and they won't flower (the smoke).
There are actually several smoke trees around here. I've even seen the really boring plain green ones allowed to get big fat and they create a very rounded interestingly trunked tree that you can sit under.

But yes, if you mow it, it grows back like a weed. I have one in the backyard someone planted and we've been mowing it down for 5 years. Maybe I should dig it up and make it into a tree.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2013 at 4:16AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

the roots are one.. poison part.. poison the whole..

NEVER waste money on 'feeding' shrubs.. they are not children ... and BTW.. if you fert the lawn.. i am sure its roots will get some ... and during last years drought.. i did not waste money on watering established shrubs either.. plain old green ones.. are simply not that foo foo ...

it might not smoke on 'new wood' ...

google 'rejuvenation pruning of flowering shrubs' .. its a 3 year system of continual renewal .. and a way to maintain a large shrub.. in a smaller way ... leaving enough old for bloom.. while maturing younger for size ... it would be as simple as cutting.. at ground level.. anything bigger than say.. e..g. 7 foot ... but always having something 5 foot there ...

research that.. and start a new post if you wish to discuss that ... because that topic would not fit under this title ...


    Bookmark   February 8, 2013 at 12:13PM
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Sara Malone Zone 9b

Your smoke bush/tree can be moved - you can hack 3/4 of the roots off and move it in early spring and just keep it well-watered until it settles in. Then start to shape it the way you want. I have about 20 of them, different varieties, some shaped as trees, some coppiced, some left alone, some trimmed slightly. Great fall color, interesting blooms, good summer color - one of my favorite shrubs. But as others have said, if you really hate it, get rid of it.

They bloom on second year wood - that is why I make sure that I don't prune back all of them at the same time.


    Bookmark   February 8, 2013 at 6:08PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

hey FF.. i want you to go dig a 2 by 2 foot hole with plant.. WITH THE UTILITIES RIGHT THERE ...

good luck with that ...

kill it and go buy another.. and SAVE YOUR LIFE


    Bookmark   February 8, 2013 at 7:40PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

"...if I prune those back to ground...and pour some RUp/Glyphostuff on just those stumps, will it travel down to kill the whole bush, or just the stems I pour it on?"

Glyophosate is systemic, but, when you use it, you should try to cut back all of the trunks and apply the chemical to all of the stumps at the same time. Often, half treatments lead to half results.

Oh, and I wouldn't necessarily "pour" it on the stumps. It only takes a small amount. Ken has a special high-tech applicator I'm sure he could share the details on, with you.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2013 at 8:21PM
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lola-lemon(5b East WA)

Never waste time feeing shrubs? Are you talking about smokes or all shrubs? I going to guess you are not? an arborist? I'd feed the Lilac for more bloom.

I think Ken has a point about letting this one die-- all those green boxes back there- yikes. the good news is Lowes and home depot carry smoke nowadays. I recommend Grace! if you buy another for under $20 probably.

This post was edited by lola-lemon on Fri, Feb 8, 13 at 20:41

    Bookmark   February 8, 2013 at 8:34PM
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Sara Malone Zone 9b

Well Ken that is a really good point!

    Bookmark   February 8, 2013 at 10:08PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

yeah.. electricity scares me more than trees killing me in my sleep.. lol ... [though i am not sure electric is there.. looks like phone and cable ...]


    Bookmark   February 9, 2013 at 7:38AM
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okay, good to know about Glyphosate being systemic. Thank you! And thanks to the "new" friends posting their input on my situation! I appreciate it! :)

    Bookmark   February 10, 2013 at 11:36AM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

Looks like a nice form to me and I, even as a collector, would keep it. Its not lanky like most.

I'd remove the lilac. Those things are a dime and dozen and boring in my opinion. They offer spring flowers and thats it.

Keep in mind that Smoke trees responds well to pruning during the growing season. So those lanky vigorous shoots...just clip anytime between May and July.

The smoke tree offers good season long color, interesting coarse texture and good fall color.

Hopefully you don't get rid of it just because of the lilac.

    Bookmark   February 10, 2013 at 3:38PM
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Thanks waas, to tell you the truth, I'm really glad others had me take a pic b/c it wasn't until AFTER I posted my pic that I saw the LILAC is more of the problem!

While the smoke bush is crazy big & vigorous, he DOES provide great screening that we want/need in that area!

So, I really have decided to remove the lilac (put Arborvitae or something taller in it's place) and just trim back the smoke bush, at least for the time being.

That being said, and back to my original post- any chance I can turn this baby into a tree form?

And do I prune back to ground level or do I dig and cut back farther below ground level? is there any difference in that or just making more work for myself?

    Bookmark   February 10, 2013 at 10:36PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

any chance I can turn this baby into a tree form?

==>> anythings possible.. probability is the question ...

let me put it this way.. its easier to guide junior to grow the way you want.. rather than make grandpa change.

you can try anything you want ... you cant kill the thing ...

but IMHO.. its going to be hard.. once you cut all but one trunk to the ground.. you are going to have lots of suckers popping up ... and that will ruin the tree form ...

besides.. i dont know why you want to clear your view to all the utility boxes ???


    Bookmark   February 11, 2013 at 8:55AM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

Ditto what Ken said.

    Bookmark   February 11, 2013 at 6:50PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)


Oh, and if you are determined to try anyway, make the cuts just above (maybe an inch) ground level.

    Bookmark   February 11, 2013 at 6:52PM
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THANK YOU Brandon for an answer to the pruning question!!!! Will be sure to keep the cuts above ground level!!

And to clarify what you and Ken are saying about a view to the utility boxes- ...actually, forget it... I just typed out a huge long explanation that I just short (or @ least shortER) with the height of our deck and where our seating is located, the size of the smokebush, and my intentions (clearly understood at least in my own head- haha) don't worry guys, I'll be fine. I always envisioned a multi-stemmed tree, which would still hide the view of the utility boxes.

...don't think I will end up trying to do tree-form after all but do plan on pruning off many shoots and thin the boy down!

as always, i appreciate the input from you all :)

    Bookmark   February 11, 2013 at 8:21PM
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Hi there, I am new here. I have a smoke bush that has grown into a kind of crown or circle with three distinct four inch diameter branches heading at times horizontal to the ground in an outward direction, as if the shrub has been flattened. I wish to bring the shrub in reducing the diameter and getting it grow more vertically. If I heavily prune, could say coppice to the first vertical branch when should this be done ?

    Bookmark   August 6, 2013 at 9:42AM
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