Category Archives: Pruning

Tree Pruning Tips

Tree Pruning Tips
Tree Pruning Tips

There are two kinds of winter gardening. The first method usually starts in January as the gardening catalogs begin to arrive in the mail. This type of gardening is as easy as sitting in your favorite chair, browsing the catalogs, and either dreaming about what you’re going to do this spring, or actually drawing designs for the gardens you intend to work on.

The second type of winter gardening is to actually get out in the yard and do a little work. Of course if it’s bitter cold, you’d be better off waiting for a good day. Winter is a good time to do some pruning if the temperatures are around 30 degrees or so. I don’t recommend pruning if it’s considerably below freezing because the wood is brittle and will shatter when you make a cut.

One of the advantages of pruning during the winter is that you can see much better what needs to be cut out and what should stay. At least that’s true with deciduous plants. The other advantage is that the plants are dormant, and won’t mind you doing a little work on them.

Ornamental trees should pruned to remove competing branches. Weeping Cherries, Flowering Dogwoods, Flowering Crabapples etc. have a tendency to send branches in many different directions. It is your job to decide how you want the plant to look, and then start pruning to achieve that look.

But first stick your head inside the tree and see what you can eliminate from there. This is like looking under the hood, and when you do you’ll see a lot of small branches that have been starved of sunlight, that certainly don’t add anything to the plant. They are just there, and should be cut out.

Any branch that is growing toward the center of the tree where it will get little sunlight should be cut out. Where there are two branches that are crossing, one of them should be eliminated. Once you get the inside of the plant cleaned up, you can start shaping the outside.

Shaping the outside is actually quite easy. Just picture how you want the plant to look, and picture imaginary lines of the finished outline of the plant. Cut off anything that is outside of these imaginary lines. It is also important to cut the tips of branches that have not yet reached these imaginary lines in order to force the plant to fill out.

For the most part plants have two kinds of growth: Terminal branches and lateral branches. Each branch has one terminal bud at the very end, and many lateral branches along the sides. The terminal buds grow in an outward direction away from the plant. Left uncut they just keep growing in the same direction, and the plant grows tall and very thin. That’s why the trees in the woods are so thin and not very attractive.

When you cut a branch on a plant, the plant sets new buds just below where you cut. When you remove the terminal bud the plant will set multiple buds; this is how you make a plant nice and full. Don’t be afraid to trim your plants, they will be much nicer because of it. The more you trim them, the fuller they become.

Lots of people have a real problem with this. They just can’t bring themselves to prune. Especially when it comes to plants like Japanese Red Maples. It kills them to even think about pruning a plant like this. Just do it! You’ll have a beautiful plant because of it.

Look at the plant objectively. If you see a branch that looks like it’s growing too far in the wrong direction, cut it. If you make a mistake it will grow back. Not pruning is the only mistake you can make. I hope this helps and doesn’t get you in trouble with your significant other. Many a family feud has started over pruning.

Spring Pruning Guidance by The Tree Care Industry Association

Three Cuts Diagram
Three Cuts Diagram

When performed incorrectly, tree work is extremely dangerous and can be lethal. In the wake of an increasing number of reported incidents involving tree trimming, the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) would like to remind arborists to use the proper tools and techniques, and for any untrained person attempting tree work to instead hire a qualified tree care professional.

“Pruning is an oft-needed maintenance treatment for good tree health and safety, but pruning without the correct knowledge or tools is not good tree care practice,” says Tchukki Andersen, BCMA, CTSP* and staff arborist with TCIA. “Pruning can be overwhelming to those not familiar with the process, and more often than not can result in undesirable results, including injury to the tree, injury to yourself and even death.”

Pruning tree branches away from a structure? A couple of things can go wrong.

Ladder placement, tie-in points, chain saw size and type of cut all affect the success of safely performing a “drop cut,” or a cut that controls whether a tree branch falls flat to the ground, as opposed to swinging unpredictably. When performed incorrectly, a branch could break mid-cut.

At the least, the cut branch might just tear the bark off the trunk while remaining attached. This would injure the tree and possibly cause a tree hazard in the future. A torn branch still requires a finishing cut, which can have an unpredictable result.

At the worst, the branch could unexpectedly and rapidly swing back into the ladder, knocking it and the worker to the ground. Another all-too-frequent scenario is when the branch weight is cut, the limb that the ladder is resting against will suddenly lift, and the ladder falls to the ground.

Many uninformed people have died attempting to prune tree branches from ladders.

Avoid the accident. Use proper tools and pruning cuts to control the limb.

There are specialty chain saw cuts professional tree care providers use to manage large limbs. But before making the first cut, they select the right cutting tool. It is necessary to use a chain saw powerful enough to make swift cuts through the wood. Do not use the following to cut live limbs from trees:

  • carpenter’s saw
  • hacksaw
  • reciprocating saw
  • low-powered electric saws

Proper pruning of tree limbs involves three cuts.

First Cut: A short distance away from the branch collar, make a small cut in the underside of the limb about a third of the way through. This notch will keep the bark from splitting during the next cut.

Second Cut: Slightly farther out the branch (away from the trunk or parent stem), parallel with, and on the side opposite the first cut, make the second cut, or “top cut,” through the branch until the branch separates. This removes the weight of the branch so the final cut can be made without the branch splitting and falling. This cut requires a firm, two-handed grip on the saw. The saw must run at full throttle to reduce risk of the branch breaking.

Final Cut: The final cut should be just outside the branch collar at the swollen attachment point of the branch into the trunk, following the angle of the branch collar. If the saw doesn’t fit into the crotch at the correct angle, it can be cut from the bottom, up.

Do not try to remove the whole branch with one cut. Making one cut to save time or effort is extremely hazardous. Cut away short, manageable sections from the end of the limb first. Removing “end weight” will reduce the risk of the branch breaking during the cut and swinging. This may require moving the ladder several times as an extra safety precaution.

About that ladder…

Ladder safety is important to consider while pruning.

  • Always have another person around while working from a ladder.
  • Use an extension ladder. Do not use a step ladder.
  • When leaning the ladder against the branch being cut, extend it at least three feet past the branch. The branch will lift significantly past the ladder when the end is removed.
  • Keep at least 10 feet away from energized lines when carrying, setting up and working from an extension ladder.

It is more technical than it looks.

It takes training and practice to confidently cut and manage tree limbs. Those working without proper chain saw experience could cause tree limbs to fall out of control, causing damage to property or themselves.

TCIA does not condone the idea of untrained people using chain saws to prune trees, especially when standing on a ladder. Standards for professional arborists call for them to secure themselves to the tree when working from a ladder, and to have two separate attachment points to the tree when using a chain saw. That’s how hazardous these practices are.

TCIA always recommends contacting a qualified tree care provider to complete tree-pruning projects.

Find a professional.

Contact TCIA, a public and professional resource on trees and arboriculture since 1938. TCIA has more than 2,300 member tree care firms and affiliated companies. All tree care company members recognize stringent safety and performance standards and are required to carry liability and workers’ compensation insurance, where applicable. TCIA also has the nation’s only Accreditation program that helps consumers find tree care companies that have been inspected and accredited based on: adherence to industry standards for quality and safety; maintenance of trained, professional staff; and dedication to ethics and quality in business practices. For more information, visit http://www.tcia.org.

An easy way to find a tree care service provider in your area is to use the “Find A Tree Care Company” program. You can use this service by calling 800-733-2622 or by doing a ZIP Code search on http://www.treecaretips.org.

  • Board Certified Master Arborist, Certified Treecare Safety Professional