How to prune your Leyland Cypress

This episode of “What Were They Thinking?” is brought to you by Independent Bible Church of Port Angeles, Washington.

On the east side of the facility is a row of formerly healthy Leyland cypresses (Cupressus x leylandii), which have now been handily butchered by, I suppose, a tree service.

Now this doesn’t bother me a whole lot, as far as feeling sorry for the trees. Leyland cypress is probably the most over-planted conifer in the Pacific Northwest. They are way too darn many of them and they are usually planted in spaces that are far too small.

The problem is that somewhere along the way, someone—actually, a lot of people, apparently—started recommending it as a “hedge plant.” But the thing they forget to tell you is that it grows 90′ tall, so to use it as a hedge, you have to prune the whole thing annually – which is a whole lot of work and cannot easily be done for most people without special equipment, once the plants pass 12 – 15′ tall or so. Hey, coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) makes a great hedge, too, if you prune it often enough! This is the same sort of tree, folks.

The other reason I am not really bothered is that I don’t consider Leyland Cypress to be that attractive in the first place. Now actually, I admit, it does not look half bad if one compares it to a lot of other conifers. But to me it is ornamentally inferior to both of its parents, Cupressus nootkatensis (Alaska Cedar) and C. macrocarpa (Monterey Cypress). (C. nootkatensis has also been called Chamaecyparis nootkatensis and a couple other things – Xanthocyparis nootkatensis may be the best choice for those wanting to really stay current – but anyway. . .) Now I know that Leylands have been promoted as more widely adapted than both parents. This may be true, but as all these trees are perfectly happy in Port Angeles, that is not a consideration in this instance. There are some fabulous examples of the at once strikingly rugged and beautiful Monterey Cypress around town. I’m not sure why anyone who could grow it would rather have a Leyland!

Mostly, though, I think that this pruning just simply does not make sense. Some of the trees have had 90% of their foliage removed and will not recover. My opinion is that for what they did to these trees, they might as well have just cut them all down, and saved themselves some money on all that fancy pruning. I guess it would not be the first time in the history of the universe that an uninformed decision was made regarding tree pruning.

If Leyland cypress grows too large for this spot (as someone apparently felt), this is simply a case of the wrong plant being chosen for the site. Perhaps something like Portugese laurel (Prunus lusitanica) would have worked out better. It would only grow to 40′ in the time it takes Leyland Cypress to grow 90′, and if it gets too broad (as would be likely, if it is not pruned regularly) it could be cut back hard and still regrow.

Finally, this gives me the opportunity to say something that has bothered me for a long time about church landscaping. As far as I have ever seen, it is always really old-school, and really boring. Lots of beauty bark, or shall we call it ugly-bark. Lots of Rhododendrons, Pieris, and yawner plants that look like nondescript green blobs 11 months out of the year and require tons of summer water. Lots of green grass and little blob-shaped purple-leaf trees. Irrigation is a must: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dry garden at a church. One gets the impression that whoever is in charge is severely lacking in imagination, and if the appropriate talent and creativity is available, it is not being tapped into. If churches are so keen on appealing to people maybe they should step outside of their little prefabricated suburbanite bubble and do something interesting. As far as I have seen, even urban churches that think they are hip are guilty of this lack of creativity and have the most boring plants/landscaping on the block. And don’t tell me it’s a money issue – they seem to have a lot to spend on irrigating and maintaining grass, and (dare I say) pruning trees. If anyone knows of a church that actually has interesting plants or landscaping, I’d love to hear about it.

Oh, and if you have planted a leyland cypress hedge, you’d better start pruning it now, or else save yourself the hours of agony and cut it down. You have been warned!

15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Marigold and the Goatmother
    May 17, 2012 @ 15:00:51

    Oh, my, naked trees. And at a church, no less. Tsk. Tsk.


  2. georgeinbandon,oregon
    May 17, 2012 @ 16:46:11

    actually, i almost feel sorry for the poor leylands—even they didn’t deserve to be treated so badly. unfortunately, your pictures are just an especially egregious example of “stupid plant picks” AND moronic maintenance. hopefully, this is an example of well-meaning parishoners doing the wrong thing but it could easily be “professional ” people who are awfully good at cutting stuff but very little else.. IMHO, most large commercial/instutional landscapes are designed for “ease of mainteance” at best and cheap initial installation combined with lack of imagination in plant selection or placement. often the church (or any other type folks) don’t know or care any better—they just want something to pretty up the area and i have very little faith in landscape architects either—especially if the budget is relatively limited in the first place. so you end up with boring landscapes stocked with the wrong plants in the wrong place—aarghhh.


  3. Loree / danger garden
    May 17, 2012 @ 17:51:38

    I haven’t been able to come up with a good “What Were They Thinking” for awhile now (well, as long as I want to still speak to my neighbors)…thanks for sharing this frightening sight.

    As for the church landscaping call-out now I’m on the hunt…(must find inspiring church planting)!!!…I’m going to California in a few weeks, if I find one there will that count?


  4. kate
    May 17, 2012 @ 20:54:54

    Ian, I’ll take photos of a local Unitarian and another progressive gay-friendly church that I seem to recall being nicer than most. More soon! Interesting, though, now that I think about it…


  5. Ian
    May 18, 2012 @ 09:48:32

    Marigold, ha! At least it isn’t plant-church??

    George, I pretty much agree – although, I would say there is (marginally) enough room there for Leylands to reach their full size, if they had been spaced farther apart, and if people had left them alone, which is really unlikely – I also notice that churches feel like they really need to prune everything.

    Loree, Kate, sure, find me some interesting church plantings, if there are any. I can think of one church here in Sequim (St Lukes Episcopal) and one in Port Angeles (Holy Trinity Lutheran, I think) where at least an effort was made to do something interesting with hardscape features and rockwork, and that are pretty well planted too, though still with choices that aren’t all that exciting. Then we have one church here in Sequim with two large eucalyptus trees (there used to be three, but one recently froze), but the rest of it is pretty blah.


  6. Desert Dweller
    May 18, 2012 @ 13:45:41

    Here, Leyland Cypress is still popular, and most are naturally pruned by spider mites on whole limbs. They just “love” our dry heat, too! Only trouble is that this plant does not convieniently shed those pruned branches when no one is near, so the owners get to spray endless poisons into them to curb the critters and pay people to prune the dead off and then replace them with the same in a few years.


  7. randy/ga
    May 18, 2012 @ 15:29:25

    Leylands are very popular here in Georgia also. Spider mites not usually a big problem, our summer humidity is fairly high, the bagworms some times infest them but overall a pest /disease free tree here. IMHO they are overplanted (dont even mention Bradford pears), they look best when younger and smaller. As for those in picture, would just make firewood out of them and start over with a plant more suitable in size. Crepe Myrtles are the usual victims of what I term “beheading” here. People just do not realize there are tree sized crepe myrtles, down to a moderate shrub. If only people would consider the FINAL SIZE of whatever they are planting………then act accordingly. As for church landscapes never really thought about them much but will keep my eyes open.
    Ian, as always thought provoking.


  8. Ian
    May 22, 2012 @ 13:11:50

    David, Randy, I’m all for growing things far away from their native range, but it has to make sense – I can’t see any reason why it would be popular in Albuquerque especially, when it is not a desert tree at all and there are so many better choices (Cupressus arizonica grows well there right?) I mean, think about it, both parents pretty much come from a maritime climate… anyway… if this were some kind of really beautiful and wonderful rare plant I can see going out of the way to maintain it where it is not well adapted… but they’re just Leyland cypresses and what’s the big deal – why are there so ubiquitous? All right, I’ve made my point and I’m preaching to the choir; I’ll stop now.


  9. hb
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 16:01:53

    Here leylands never get pruned because they die of bacterial canker before they get too big. (Maybe that is a good thing?)

    I agree, church gardens are baffling. Why not (to the exent possible) use biblical plants or schemes that reflect their religion? Here where olives and grapes (are those not biblical plants? I don’t know) do so well, why do they not plant those instead of grass and pine trees?


    • georgeinbandon,oregon
      Jun 16, 2012 @ 16:52:21

      actually, such things have been done but they are not always easy to pull off especially with limited staff and funds to acquire, plant, and maintain. olives be potentially “iffy” in the PNW (not reliably hardy and need intelligent pruning to look presentable IMHO—also messy if they do fruit near paths) and grapes like most vines can be difficult to train and care for in a landscape without somebody who knows what they are doing. other biblical plants would be equally tender and have to be replaced again in the PNW and in other cases the symbolism would often be lost on the average church goer. my guess is that the ideal landscape ;look would be peaceful and park like if space allows and perhaps provide, some, shade, shelter, and beauty for the appropriamte climate and locality and at the same time be cheap to keep and easy to maintain.. just like other public settings be they bank, school, church, or whatever, i have seen some that achieve this and some that don’t. the leyland cypress Ian posted on is just a very glaring example of what happens when good intention meets ignorance…and so it goes.


  10. georgeinbandon,oregon
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 18:18:27

    let me clairfy a bit—again, the biblical theme is a potentially very good one and certainly can add a “deeper” layer of meaning to a landscape in a church setting so sincere kudos to the previous poster’s ideas. certainly not all biblical plants would be tender or otherwise unsuitable in the PNW (let alone other places like california and the s.w for example.) and might be attractive, rich in symbolism, and maybe drought tolerant and low maintenance. nevertheless, most folks are probably going to end up muddling thru with something that hopefully is at least generically pretty and peaceful and if they choose suitable plants that are well adapted for the particular location and the general climate and treat them well they will likely end up creating a good space of some sort in some way. and if they don’t, they will probablyend up with the potential for another picture to post like the one we saw.


  11. M. D. Vaden portland landscaping and tree
    Dec 17, 2012 @ 14:12:17

    Only once have I planted Leyland Cypress for myself. We had 1 acre in southern Oregon, with a lot of space for growth. Up north in Beaverton, near Portland, none have been seen in our landscaping. Leyland cypress could be called money trees, because they are like living savings accounts for tree services.

    There’s several around town that look very nice, but those have room to grow, and most had some occasional pruning.



  12. Trackback: My garden trees: #2 Leyland cypress | Portland Tree Tour
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  14. baygardensny
    Jun 12, 2018 @ 02:22:20

    Thanks for putting a light on how we can good take care of our leyland cypress plants in right way. You shared wide information about caring of leyland cypress plants. To follow this way we can give good take care to leyland cypress plants. Pruning is a most important factor for bringing up for leyland cypress privacy plants.


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