Spring Mugo pine care

Alright, I lied. Last time I said I would give you more smaller shade trees.  That will have to wait a week. Instead of continuing with my theme from my last post, I am going to talk about spring Mugo pine care tasks to keep it looking nice and staying compact.  I am changing subjects, because now is the time to do this in a lot of areas.

First step in Mugo pine care

The first thing you should do is to assess your mugo pine’s current condition. There are three areas your should consider.  They are:

  1. Common pests
  2. Shape & Desnsity
  3. Size
Mugo Pine care - scale on pine

Pine scale on pine
photo credit: Scot Nelson via photopin cc

Common Pests
– Is there any scale or sawfly on it?  Pine sawfly is a green and black caterpillar like insect that chews pines needles.  It’s favorite food is Mugo pine.   They are easiest to spot by looking for spots where the needles have appeared to be striped away.  Your #1 spring mugo pine care priority should be to remove these little turds.  Pine scale is another common insect that affect mugo pines.  It appears as small whitish specs that cover the needles.  It is less common but can make your pine’s needles turn brown and just look like heck.

Density & Shape – How dense is the pine.  Is it foliage sparse, overly dense,  or just about right.

The ideal shape that most people want for there mugo pine is that of a rounded mound.

Mugo pine with nice mounded shape

Mugo pine with nice mounded shape
photo credit: F. D. Richards via photopin cc

How does your mugo pine compare to ideal shape?   Are there gaps of foliage missing anywhere.  If there are you will want to let the pine grow into that area and fill the space.

Size – In an ideal world, how big would you like this pine to be?  How does its current size compare?  Is it way overgrown or would you like it to be larger?

Next mugo pine care job, treat (a nice way of saying kill) any pests

If you have sawfly or scale you should get rid of it or they quickly will make your mugo look like a sick puppy.

Mugo pine care task pine sawfly larvae removal

Aren’t they cute!

My favorite mugo pine care job is picking off and squishing pine sawfly.  If you are a wus, whimp, or sissy you can spray them with insecticidal soap or any number of other nasty insecticides like Sevin.

If you see just a little bit of pine scale you can rip off the needles that have it.  Then dispose of them away from the pine to keep them from spreading.  If you have more than a few, I would apply a little imidacloprid (such as Bayer Tree and shrub care) to your pine.  This insecticide is absorbed into the plant and moves throughout it.

Candle your mugo pine

Candles on a mugo pine are tender shoots that appear in Spring. The entire season of growth of the branch and needles are compressed into these candle shaped growths. They are typically in bunches with one main candle surrounded by smaller candles. This main candle becomes the long straight branch and the smaller candles become side branches.

Pine candles explained

Reducing candle length

Reducing the pine’s candle length, reduces the eventual size the shoot will grow to this year.

Candling a pine candle by hand

Using your fingers to snap a pine candle

You will want to cut candles with a pruner or snap off with your fingers to reduce their eventual length.  You have to do this before the candles become hard and woody in mid summer. Otherwise they will not form buds for next years growth at their ends and they will just die in a few years.

Cutting pine candle with hand pruners

Cutting pine candle with hand pruners

You want to do this usually by the middle to end of June in my Chicago zone 5 area.  If you are south of me, you will want to do this earlier (like now).

The percentage of the existing candle you remove, will reduce the eventual length of the candle by that amount.  So if you remove 50% of the candle, it will only grow to roughly 50% of what it’s eventual size would have been.

Reduce the candles that are growing outside the profile of the shrub the most.  Leave more of the ones that are well within the profile and they will fill a space.

Removing individual candles

If you just reduce the length of your candles every year, your pine will grow increasingly thick.  Eventually, you will want to thin the candles by removing some of them to keep it from getting even thicker.

If your pine is sparse –  You will want to leave all leave all inner candles and completely remove the main candle at the end of each branches, leaving the secondary candles.  These secondary candles will usually not even need to be shorten, unless you REALLY want to keep your Mugo from growing much at all, then you can reduce them a bit.

Removing main candle to promote density in a mugo pine.

If your pine is already too dense – Remove most candles at the end of branches, leaving  only 1 candle.  For candles inside the bush only leave 1 or 2 candles.

What candles not to shorten or remove

In spots where you want your pine to grow to conform to the ideal shape, you have to let it grow in that direction by leaving candles that will grow into that area longer.  If there are gaps find branches that could grow to fill the gap from the inside of the pine outward or upward to fill a space.

Here is a quick demonstration of candling.

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  1. Mike says

    I was a landscaper for over thirty years. I did a lot of garden makeovers. I also yanked a lot of Mugo Pines out of the ground with my truck. In almost all cases they were planted too close to the driveway or sidewalk. Nobody gives them enough room! Same with Junipers. Oh, and Weeping Cherries. By the time catchup measures are taken, it’s too late.
    Most Mugo Pines sold on the market are seed grown. They have a LOT of variability in growth rates. Very few people buy the grafted variety called ‘Pumila’, which is slow growing and more expensive than seed grown plants.
    I understand candle pruning, but very few people do it, and if they do, it’s too late.
    Another mistake people make is when the Mugo starts to crowd the lawn, they whack back the Mugo instead of changing the lawn line to accommodate the Mugo.
    I’m pretty good at pruning, but Mugos are very difficult to prune and come up with satisfactory results. Have you done it?

    • says

      I believe I have Mike. I agree that an old overgrown Mugo is difficult to prune into an immediately attractive plant. However, in most cases it is possible to cut them back and renovate them into a nice MUCH smaller plant over a period of a few years.

      The 1st year year they can look a tad rough, but it really depends on the plant. The younger the plant is, usually the easier this is to accomplish, but even old plants can often be made surprisingly attractive, if your patient enough.

      Although I have to say this is much easier to accomplish when it is your own yard and not a client that expects it to look perfect the second you are done.

  2. Diane says

    Perfect timing for this discussion. I walked outside Monday to find a very sad looking Mugo pine. The pesty sawfly almost ate 1/2 the plant. Now that we elimiated the bugs, will it eventually return to its beautiful state?


    • says

      Yes, they don’t feed on the new growth so it will fill in a bit this year as the candles expand. It won’t look conpletely like it did before, till next years growth expands.

  3. says

    I appreciate this post! We don’t have a mugo pine, but all of the ones along my morning walk route have gotten the speculative eye this week. So far I have managed to resist helping out my neighbors!

    Does the same method work for other pines (snapping off the candles according to how much/little you want them to grow?)

    • says

      Yep this works with all pines (Pinus). Spruces, firs and other evergreens that are sometimes called “pines” require different techniques.

      Glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. Ada Higgins says

    Our mugo pines have a growth on many of the bottom end of the secondary candles. It resembles a grouping of tiny fruit around the candle. I can’t recall ever seeing it before, but there are many this year. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

    • says

      Ada those sure sound like they are the flowers. If you leave them you will see them become pine cones. Like most trees and shrubs, it takes a plant a while before it begins flowering, it sounds like yours is now old enough.

  5. Liz Jamison says

    I have a beautiful mugo pine that has browning inner needles which are dying and falling off. Is it a fungus and how can I treat it?



    • says

      It may be needle blight, such as Brown spot needle blight. You can’t do anything now as it is a spring time infection that is only showing symptoms now. You can spray the new needles next year as they expand in the spring. You will want to spray with a fungicide that treats pine needle blight. The usual one is Daconil. You will need to spray a few times according to the directions for pine needle blight. This is a preventative spray that keeps needles from getting infected. Once you see symptoms it is too late to bother spraying.

  6. charlie says

    Like Liz, I have brown needles, mainly on the tips of the branch. Some branches are all brown. Could it be brown blight and if it is, can we do anything but wait? It looks kind of scary- we would hate to lose these beauties…
    Thanks, Charlie in Detroit

    • says

      Yes is could be a pine blight. I am guessing that Detroit has had a fairly humid spring and summer (like us in Chicago) and it seems that the fungal diseases are pretty bad this year. They could also have been stressed from last years drought and that could be impacting them also. Herbicide damage or dog pee can also cause similar symptoms, but it sounds like blight to me.

  7. Donna says

    Hello, Jim. I’m very glad I found this post!

    There is a mugo pine in my front yard that was planted by previous owners. It is huge–at least 6′ high and 8′ across. I doubt that it’s ever been pruned. The front yard is sloped and the mugo is bordered by a sidewalk and a driveway on two sides, and it has grown over the edge of the driveway by about a foot. It’s difficult to water due to its placement and the slope of the yard. I think it is probably original to the house which is 18 years old.

    It’s rangy to the point that I can see through it and I’ve been thinking of removing it. My neighbor has a much smaller one that they have up-limbed, but I think this one needs a little more than that to make it attractive.

    Is there a way to improve its looks and reduce it in size by maybe a third?

    Thank you!

    • says

      I am sure it can be improved, whether it will look great or not for a few years I couldn’t say without seeing it. How exactly to do what you are asking is a bit longer than I could explain in a single post or a response to your comment. I will definitely put this topic on my to do list and will cover this, so keep on eye out for something in a while.

  8. Stephen Knapp says

    Jim – we’ve just moved to this property and this is the first summer talking care of it – Central Massachusetts. The two Mugo Pines here have started to brown out very quickly – one more than the other. We are in a sustained drought here and just learning to take care of the different plants. Will check for blight. Would good ground soakings help?


    • says

      Once a needle is brown it is dead. Hopefully the buds for next years growth have not died from lack of water. Long and deep watering is always a good idea, jut be sure to let the plant dry out between waterings.

  9. joe bonn says

    I have two mungos and one of them has spread out and looks spare in the center. Is this a sign of deficient soil or the fact that I never pruned them. Also, do we need to feed these in the spring?


    • says

      It’s probably not the soil although I would not rule it out.

      How much sun does it receive. What you are describing sounds like it could be caused by the plant not getting enough sun.

      Pine sawfly eating old needles in spring could also cause it look sparse. Look for them as the candles are expanding. In my area, if you have a mugo pine you will most likely get some pine sawfly larvae feeding on it every year. Them eating the old needles and a lack of candling to keep the length of the shoots from extending too long can certainly produce a mugo with a sparse center.

  10. Jim says

    Lorie asked:

    “The deer had a feast on our mugo pines this past winter. Any tips to fertilize them to give them a boost? They are looking sparse, sad and brown in parts. Any tips or advice is greatly appreciated.”

    I would apply a balanced slow release fertilizer like Osmocote 14-14-14 now. It won’t make a big difference but will help promote growth a little.

    You may also want to candle any sections of the pine that were not in the area that was damaged, while leaving the damaged area candles alone. This will help to balance the look of it.

  11. Betty Vogelaar says

    Like Lori (?), I too have had some deer come and devastate my mugo pine. It is about 12 years old and has been transplanted in a rock covered area along with some other plants.
    This winter was a tough one and the deer came and practically stripped it which makes it look very sad and damaged. I am ready to cut it back but will it survive or should I be selective in trimming it? Only a few tops have candles on it and even they look spindly. Please, help me! Thank you, Betty

    • says

      I am not sure what it looks like, but you probably would be best to be very selective about what you remove. Buds can occasionally develop on old wood as long as they are still alive, but it is not a sure thing. Leave as much as you can that has live candles on it. Remove branches that don’t have any. hopefully dormant buds will break back further on damaged branches and fill in eventually. Prune as little as you can for now.

  12. Marian says

    We have mugo pines in are back yard ,they are very sparse at the bottoms ,Can u please tell me if there is any way of filling them back in they are about 8 feet high,they are also 20 feet long
    they serve as a privacy wall for our pit area ,but because they are getting so sparse we can now see the back of our house and not so private any more ,Any suggestion would be helpful,THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME MARIAN HAYES

    • says

      There is not any real way of doing what you are asking for with any certainty, especially if they are older plants.
      If you prune them heavy on the top portions of the plant to open up sunlight to reach the inside of the bushes you may get some growth to re-sprout on lower branches.
      Also cut the main leader of each stem back a little bit to a side branch as this can help to stimulate interior regrowth by removing apical dominance of the main leading candle.

  13. says

    I have a very large mugo pine near my front entrance and I want to remove and replace it with something else like korean spice viburnum. Is this something the average gardener can do or should I pay someone to remove it? Does is have deep thick roots? It is about 7 years old. Can I replant over it without removing all or most of the roots? I live in the suburban Chicago area. Thanks!

  14. Joshua says

    My neighbor has a twelve foot tall pine, I think Mugo, about twelve inches from our property line. I would like to do some sculpting of the ground near there: dig lower some areas and mound up others. Would either of those actions hurt the pine? Thanks.

    • says

      Probably will. If you can avoid cutting the larger roots you can minimize the damage you cause. You could kill the tree or it might not even notice what you are doing. It depends what percentage of it’s roots you are disturbing.

  15. Adam says

    Hi. Our mugos are growing cones this year and we also noticed a brighter yellow growth on the main branches but it looks softer and powdery? What is it?

  16. says

    We have two mugo pines that have grown so big and wondered if they can be trimmed at this time of the year (May 2015). . . At the moment they have little pine cones that are on the bush. We need to know if the mugo pine can be trimmed now. They are taking over the entire “territory”.
    Thank you in advance of your answer. . .

    • says

      They can be candled now but that won’t reduce their size, it will just keep them from growing too much this year.They can be pruned at any time, but make sure they have bus that will be growing. They will not grow from branches that don’t have new growth. They are definitely not prunable in the same way as normal bushes.

  17. Mike says

    Hi, I have a dwarf Mugo that looks very good. In April I watered with aquarium water thinking it would act like a fertilizer. The candles have come in really tall and I’m wondering if that is why. After reading your comments I’ll probably prune them 50% in June. What do you think. Thanks.

  18. Amber says

    Hi Jim-
    we just planted new mugo pines in the fall. This spring there are areas where they turned brown and appear dead to me. My landscaper said it was due to winter frost burn and it should recover. So far, it hasn’t. He said he’d come back later this summer and remove all the brown stuff and trim the rest of the mugo pine in the process. After reading your post- I’m a little concerned that he has no idea what he’s doing. Am I correct in saying that if we prune the candles now, the plant will just die?


    • says

      The individual stems and candles will not form buds, but it could cause some dormant buds to break. Your landscaper can also selectively remove side branches or cut back to them and what’s left (as long as there are candles left unpruned to grow,) could recover just fine. He very well may know how to selectively prune it.

  19. Shane Solow says


    Last month I bought a “Jacobson” Mugo Pine and it looked healthy but it was a rainy week and I suppose that and transplanting it stressed it out. Within only ten days it had turned completely brown and died. I think it was fungus from overwatering and replanting into a porch container. Anyhow, I tried Neem oil when it was half brown to no avail. The nursery was kind enough to send a replacement and It also looks green and healthy – it arrived two days ago and I’ve transplanted it and given it water but I don’t think I should water it again for at least a week and if it rains perhaps should put an umbrella over it. I’ve also sprayed it with Neem oil to be on the safe side. However I noticed this morning some yellowing and I’m very worried the same thing will happen. Any advice is welcome – thanks

    • says

      Neem oil can burn plants if used during hot weather. I would not use it or any other horticultural oil during the Summer months at all.
      I have not used it myself, but typically only use oil’s as dormant sprays during Spring or Fall although on evergreens they risky to use any time.

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