One of the questions we regularly get is how to prune neem trees. Given the fact that they are tropical trees growing in temperate climates, their first choice is straight up. They want to get as much sun as possible so they’ll send one branch up as high as you’ll let it grow.
That doesn’t make for the prettiest plant on your patio or sunroom – and it’s not as productive as careful pruning can make it either. A shorter bushier neem tree is far more attractive plus having multiple growing tips means you’ll get much more neem leaf and chew sticks.
The best time to prune a neem tree is right around your last expected freeze date. (Visit http://www.almanac.com/content/frost-chart-united-states/ if you don’t know when that is.) You can prune in advance because every gardener I know has their hands full once that magical date finally arrives, but not too far in advance.
What you want to do is say to the tree – “Hey guys, it’s getting warm, let’s put this new growth where I want it, not necessarily on the top of an eight-foot tree.” You can shape your neem tree almost any way you like. The featured image on this blog is actually a neem tree growing at EPCOT. We floated around on that boat four times before we finally recognized the apple-tree shape as our neem trees 🙂
If you’ve never pruned your neem tree before, you may have a tree with just a shaggy bit of growth at the top of a long bare stem. With any other plant, you might need to keep trimming a tiny amount at the top until the growth finally backs down.
With a neem tree, though, you can drastically cut it to shape it back up – up to half its height even if it means no leaves left on the trunk. In fact, nearly every neem tree we ship has undergone the same treatment at least once because that gives the tree a better chance to grow a good root system without getting so tall it won’t fit in a mailing box.
The photo at left shows neem trees in the greenhouse getting ready for spring. You can see some of the taller plants behind them. At one point, most of them at no leaves at all, but they’ll rebound quickly and with extra growth on the lower part of the tree.
The two trees growing in the ground actually taught us an important lesson. They’re planted in partial shade under oak trees where they get some protection from cold weather. The smaller tree – with far more leaf and chew sticks – was cut back to about three feet last spring. The larger tree just grew and grew and grew. Now it’s so tall that we’re going to have to trim it with a chain saw. (If it had been growing in full sun, it probably would have had more leaves on its lower branches though.)
Here are a couple of hands-on tips about trimming neem trees or other shrubs:
Make your cuts at a 45-degree angle, about 1/4 inch above a bud that is facing toward the outside of the plant.
Use sharp shears or scissors to get a clean cut.
Don’t be fearful of over-trimming. As long as they have good roots, neem trees will come back from even just a stub in the ground.
Once you’ve pruned, give your tree its first fertilizer of the spring. But remember that too much fertilizer will kill a plant much more quickly than none at all. We recommend using it at half the recommended strength but twice as often.