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The Complete Guide to Tree Pruning

Whether you’re a landscaper, gardener, or just a homeowner looking to maintain the health and beauty of your property, tree pruning is a necessary and important task that should always be done with the proper tools and techniques.

Tree Pruning

Our complete guide to tree pruning is here to make this process as simple and straightforward as possible; read on to learn all you need to know about the why, the when, the how, and the “do’s” and “don’ts” of tree pruning!

Why Tree Pruning is Important

The Complete Guide to Tree Pruning

Tree Pruning Promotes Healthy Plants

One aspect of tree pruning involves the health of the tree itself. Dead or dying branches, branches that are injured, or branches that are infected with disease or insect infestations can all present a threat to the tree’s overall health and longevity. In addition, overgrown branches can also create unnecessary hardship for the growth of the tree. Regular and purposeful pruning will help prevent these unhealthy conditions from compromising the tree’s overall livelihood.

Tree Pruning For Landscaping

Another important aspect of tree pruning is how it shapes your landscaping. Fruit trees, hedges, and decorative forms are all important parts of a desired landscaping look, and to maintain shapeliness and structure in your trees requires careful and precise tree pruning at healthy intervals.

This will also help maintain the natural beauty of your plants, as careful pruning will prevent overgrowth, encourage natural density, and in terms of fruiting trees, will also help remove suckers and other fruiting structures that can compromise both the tree’s appearance and its overall crop.

Tree Pruning Protects People, Property, and Pets

We’ve all seen them, often along the roadside: large trees professionally pruned back from power or utility lines. This is just one aspect of tree pruning that is important: being mindful of the safety of people, property, and pets. The purposeful removal of dead or hazardous growth, or weakened branches that hang particularly over heavily trafficked areas such as sidewalks, yards, parking spaces, etc., is an important part of tree pruning that helps keep people and animals safe and will reduce the risk of property damage.

If you have branches hanging from trees on your property that interfere with street lights or overhead wires such as telephone wires, you should not do this type of tree pruning yourself. Instead, contact your local utility company or city maintenance, as this will generally require specialized equipment to safely address.

When to Start Tree Pruning

Tree Pruning

There are a couple different times and types of tree pruning, and each has its place during the year.

Winter pruning has its uses in that it provides an entire growing season in which the pruning wound on the tree can seal.

Heavy pruning, which involves the pruning of live tissue on the tree, should almost always take place before the spring growth flush—the time when the tree does its most growing—which is roughly around the time period of April through May, when the bark is at its tenderest and susceptible to easy tearing. It should also be avoided during the time of fall coloration, when decay and diseases such as oak wilt can transmit through the pruning wounds.

Other than these specific times, routine maintenance via tree pruning, with the removal of compromised parts of the tree being the main goal, can be accomplished throughout the season.

Tools for Tree Pruning

Tree Pruning with Hacksaw

There are several handy tree pruning tools that will help you accomplish the job; always keep in mind that these are sharp tools with a lot of force behind them, so safety is paramount! In addition to the tools listed below, make sure you have a hard hat and goggles whenever you engage in tree pruning.

Pruning shears are among the most popular tree pruning tools. They generally make cuts up to ¾ of an inch in diameter and are easy to maneuver and control, and are best kept sharp for the task. (NOTE: For more information on how to keep your pruning shears sharp, check out our article on How to Sharpen Pruning Shears.)

Hedge shears are a vital tool when you have hedge trees that need pruning. These types of shears are intended specifically for hedging, and are built for smaller, tighter stems.

Lopping shears are a longer handled form of pruning shears, which allows them to make cuts up to 1 ½ inches in diameter. These can be a bit more unwieldy for some due to the length of their handles, but are great for higher and harder-to-reach branches.

Saws will be your best tool for pruning branches that are over an inch in diameter; hand saws with tri-cut and razor tooth pruning blades are able to cut through branches up to 4 inches in diameter without any trouble. Pole saws are a longer handled version of a hand saw, allowing for a further reach, but they can be unwieldy due to the handle’s length. Small chain saws are a necessity for larger branches, but utmost care, protective gear, and caution are required when using them, and they must not be used on branches anywhere above chest height.

Techniques for Tree Pruning

Tree Pruning

There are a few particularly important techniques used in tree pruning, each producing different results and each being an important part of the pruning process.

Cleaning: The most common form of tree pruning, cleaning involves the removal of any branches that are already dead, actively dying, beset with disease, compromised in their attachment, or are simply growing from the tree’s crown without much stamina.

Raising: This form of tree pruning involves the removal of the tree’s lower branches in order to make room for nearby buildings or vehicles, pedestrians passing below, etc.

Reduction: This is the form of tree pruning we often see near power lines or other utility aspects. Reduction has sometimes been compared to topping—which involves shearing off the top of a tree—but unlike the dangerous and discouraged practice of topping, reduction prunes secondary branch terminals rather than the terminal leaders that are harmed in topping. This allows trees to be shaped safely without compromising their health and integrity the way topping does.

Thinning: Finally, the tree pruning form known as thinning helps decrease the density of the tree’s foliage from the crown; this can help increase wind and light penetration through the foliage, which is often done either for aesthetic reasons or to help increase the growth and development of the interior foliage, which receives less light and wind when there is a higher density in the tree’s crown.

Where and How to Prune

Tree Pruning

When pruning, the general rule of thumb is to pick branches, twigs, or buds for cutting that are aimed in the direction you want the tree to grow; this will encourage health and controlled new growth.

When you have selected your branches, twigs, or buds for cutting and begin pruning the tree, you will want to make your cut just outside the “collar”, the spot where a branch originates from the tree trunk. Avoid cutting into the tissue of the trunk itself, as this will compromise the tree’s healing. Instead, focus just outside the collar and make sure your cut does not leave a stub!

When pruning small branches, you will want to place your shears with the blunter jaw angled against the part of the branch that will be discarded; then close the jaws and remove the branch.

When pruning larger branches, you will want to take a three-step cutting approach: the first being an upward cut into the limb’s belly, about 6 inches past the collar of the limb, cutting about a quarter to a third of the way through the limb; the second being a cut from the top angled downward, positioned about 9 to 10 inches out from the collar, cutting until the branch breaks away. At this point, the weight of the branch is no longer a factor, so your third and final cut will remove the stub.

Important “Dos” and “Don’ts” of Tree Pruning 

Tree Pruning

Pruning “Dos”

  • Always use an appropriately sharpened pruning tool that is in good repair.
  • Whenever possible without compromising your ability to wield your pruning tool, use sturdy gloves.
  • Be mindful of where you are making your cuts and avoid excessive wounding to the tree.
  • Ensure that your pruning area is free of hazards or objects of harm, such as children or animals passing below.

Pruning “Don’ts”

  • Do not “top” trees—shearing off the entire top of a tree or its large branches—which is a hazardous practice that will compromise the life span of the tree.
  • Do not dress or paint over the wounds left by pruning, as this will inhibit the natural healing process.
  • Do not prune with rusted, dirty, or failing tools, as this can pose a risk both to the tree and to yourself.
  • Do not prune during the spring growth flush or fall coloration period.

Wrapping Up the Complete Guide to Pruning

Feeling prepared to grab your tools and tackle some tree pruning? Make sure you’re fully equipped with the best tools, techniques, and knowledge by taking the time to visit our pruning section and bulk up your know-how before you get started!

Interested in learning about more gardening tools? Then visit my garden tools page for tips, product advice, and comprehensive guides!