How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning

Our post today is about pruning your trees.

correct incorrect pruning How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
Correct and incorrect pruning on young trees and more established

Besides Shenandoah, our guest co-author today is Connie Jameson. Connie is a passionate freelancer blogger and writer. Her love of nature is very strong. She currently works for Shiny builders cleaning in London and she says she is really satisfied because she earns good money and has enough time to write on different topics about nature.

FBA0908 How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
Star magnolia tree in bloom

Tree pruning is the selective elimination of branches or parts of branches in order to improve the health of the tree by removing the dry, dead, diseased, heavily damaged or broken branches; to provide more light penetration and aeration through the crown of the tree; to improve the overall looks of the tree; and finally to provide space for pedestrians, vehicles, utility lines, and better visibility by removing lower branches (the latter called raising or lifting the crown).

Pruning Tools

You will need some or all of the following tools: (although you will probably not need a chainsaw for a young tree!)

rose gloves713hzHtTibL. SL1500  How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
Rose Gloves

rose gloves to protect both your hands and arms from sharp sticks, etc.

bypass loppers41GOoxRKlHL. SY450  How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
Bypass Loppers

Bypass lopper

pruning saw31T63L36KIL. SX450  How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
Folding Saw

Folding saw

pruning saw31op09owxxL. SX300  How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
Pruning Saw

Pruning saw

hand pruner41yq97H6VOL. SX450  How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
Bypass Hand Pruner

Bypass hand pruner

tree pruner31 ZmZt70AL. SX450  How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
Combination Pole Saw & Pruner

combination pole saw pruner

Although DH uses a gasoline powered Stihl chainsaw, I am recommending a lighter electric powered one for my aging muscles. Just consider logistics and have enough 10 gauge extension cord to run this baby. Another alternative is a battery powered chainsaw, but remember that the battery adds weight and to have a backup battery because the power will probably run out before the task does.

chain saw31M9PV24Q0L. SX300  How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
Chain Saw


Pruning Process

The pruning process is easy, but you must be careful and not haphazard in what you cut back or cut out. In order to make a tree’s crown beautiful, you need to prune it thoughtfully, taking into account the overall shape and appearance of the tree.

That is why the first branches that should be removed are those that are dry, broken, or diseased. Next, remove any branches that are crossing over each other, especially if they are rubbing against each other. Never leave a stub. Then you can take off those branches that “violate” the structure of the tree itself. For example, some branches are too big and heavy, which may lead to the tree bending over and even falling down, especially when the tree is young. The approach you use when pruning young trees is important because you need to pay attention not only as to what needs to be done in order to keep your trees healthy and beautiful but also as to what shape and size you want them to grow.

Why do you need to prune trees?

Pruning deciduous trees, especially, is necessary because:

  • it regulates the shape and size of trees and shrubs; this is especially important for controlling your young trees
  • it affects the decorative effect – blossoms, leaves, fruits; if you prune before flowering, you will miss a season’s flowers and fruits, for example. For some trees, such as apples, if you trim too late in the season, you will reduce the amount of flowering for the following season.
  • You can slow down aging of your trees by pruning; and
  • it is used for the so-called ‘sanitary’ pruning of dry and dead branches. We get tent caterpillars in our trees in the summer, and cutting their nests out along with the tree branches that their nests incorporate is almost mandatory.

What is the best season for pruning trees?

Pruning small branches can be done any time of year. Pruning large branches is generally (but not always) performed in the period of rest (late winter or very early spring in the northern hemisphere), because then the majority of the nutrients are located in the root system of the plant. However, pruning should not be carried out at temperatures lower than 25 degrees Fahrenheit (-4 degrees Celsius) and if you see that pruning is needed then, wait until after flowering next season before doing your prune. Pruning immediately after flowering is recommended for apples, azaleas, lilacs, and forsythia, because later pruning will reduce the amount of flowering the following season on these plants.

What are the best pruning techniques?

The pruning technique you use is very important, because you want to maintain the vitality of your trees. Ideally, the surface you cut should have a small diameter. You shouldn’t  crush the branches when you cut them. The cut surface should be smooth and angled in order not to retain any water and heal more quickly.

Pruning can be made on buds that face the trunk and likely to thicken the crown or produce what is called water sprouts (see 1 below), something you don’t want, or on buds that face away from the trunk and likely to lead to crown branching (see 3 below), which is something that is more favorable long term. You can’t always control which way your bud is facing, but you can be careful about how closely you prune to a bud.

stubs images How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
Cutting close to a bud

When you have a large branch to prune, you don’t want the branch to break before you are finished cutting and perhaps shear bark off the tree when it breaks, so you should make an undercut on the branch about 1/3 of the way in the opposite direction from where you want to cut through the branch, and then cut further out from the tree in the direction you want to make the final cut, then make the final cut up close to the tree.

large cuts images How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
Making large cuts

Then tidy up the cut to induce healing. Nowadays, experts do not recommend painting a tree wound when made. It does not help in the healing process. We use tree paint because it hides the cut visually until the tree heals.

What are the main pruning methods used?

There are two main pruning methods:

  • shortening the branches
  • thinning a tree out by removing whole branches

When you are shortening, you want to remove only a certain part of the branches, which stimulates the growth of the buds located directly beneath the cut.

angle cuts images How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
Cuts close to buds

When you are thinning, you want to remove the whole branch right up to its root collar (the base).

pruningdiag l How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
Removing branches to the branch collar

We should point out that in general you don’t need to prune evergreen trees the way you have to prune deciduous trees. And if you do prune them, except for some rare exceptions, don’t prune where there are no leaves or needles expecting regrowth of the remaining branch, because the tree will not regrow there and you will be left with a stub or bare branch.

Thinning the crown of the tree

Generally, careful thinning helps a tree resist strong winds in storms. Make sure you  also remove some lower branches to make the tree crown more beautiful.

Removing dead branches

This is one of the most common pruning processes even if your tree is the size and shape you want it. Removing all dead, diseased or infested tree branches will improve the overall tree structure and make it healthier. Any rubbing branches should also be selectively pruned out since this will lead to disease or infestation.

Lifting the tree crown up

This pruning method removes the lower branches of the tree in order to provide more space for vehicles, buildings and pedestrians. It doesn’t literally raise the crown of the tree. But it does make the tree appear taller.

Reducing the tree crown

Reducing the size of the tree crown is simply removing a certain percentage of the tree’s height by even and balanced branch pruning. It is not good to cut off very significant amounts of a tree just because you can (see an earlier post about avoiding the “big whack” of crepe myrtles). It makes the resulting tree unnatural in shape and most people consider it ugly. It removes the leader (the branch that marks the highest point of the tree) and results in weak limbs.

CSB 3574 How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
A crepe myrtle pruned for its location

Where Not to Plant a Tree

And this is probably a good place to remind you that it isn’t a good idea to plant large trees close to power lines because eventually the municipality will have to trim these trees to keep their branches from falling on power lines during storms, and they don’t have the time and knowledge to do a careful prune of trees to keep them from looking ugly and malformed.

When to call in a professional

So you can prune your own trees if you take your time and envision what you want your tree to look like after the pruning and for many years to come. Eventually though, a tree often becomes too large for any homeowner to do his or her own pruning. It is simply unsafe to carry a chainsaw up into a tree with you, or to saw branches while perched on a tall ladder leaning against a tree. Certainly, you should never do your own tree pruning around electric lines!

DSC0788 How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning
Protecting one tree while pruning another

This is when you should call in a tree professional and have them do the work to maintain your trees’ beauty and health. Trust us, it is worth the value of a single tree (often thousands of dollars) and your own health (priceless) to bring in professionals to give you advice and to do the dangerous work. We have an arborist come in annually to check out our very large trees, and we find that he does not recommend the same trees to be pruned every year, sometimes only every 3 to 5 years, unless the tree is damaged or diseased.

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7 thoughts on “How To Take Care Of Your Trees: Pruning”

  1. Your pruning post. Wow what a long and very informative post. I usually find on explanations like this post that there is something with which I do not agree! Not today!
    I think most explanations make horticultural tasks seem more difficult than they are! e.g. worrying about exactly where you make your cuts in relation to the bud is not really difficult, you do it automatically and if you don’t get it right on some branches it does not really matter.
    I don’t know if I missed it but did you say anything about pruning sealant?. It is of course a complete waste of time. I discuss this in an older post on my blog, and also about pruning!

    1. Hi Roger,
      I did mention that tree paint is not considered an aid to the tree healing, but I also said I like to use it at least occasionally if the wound needs to be hid from sight. We personally don’t like all those white polka dots up and down a dark trunk, and we have never found the wound to fester when we have painted over the wound.
      Best to you,

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