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Pruning trees and shrubs

Quick facts

  • Pruning changes the form and growth of a plant.
  • Pruning can also be considered preventive maintenance for both insect and disease damage.
  • Many problems may be prevented by pruning correctly during the formative years for a tree or shrub.
  • The late dormant season is the best time for most pruning.

Prune to promote plant health

  • Remove dead or dying branches injured by disease, severe insect infestation, animals, storms, or other adverse mechanical damage.
  • Remove branches that rub together.
  • Remove branch stubs

Avoid topping trees. Removing large branches leaves stubs that can cause several health problems. It also destroys the plant's natural shape and promotes suckering and development of weak branch structures.

Prune to maintain intended purposes for plants in a landscape:

  • To encourage flower and fruit development.
  • To maintain a dense hedge.
  • To maintain or encourage a desired plant form or special garden forms.

Prune to improve plant appearance

Appearance in the landscape is essential to a plant's usefulness. For most landscapes, a plant's natural form is best.

Avoid shearing shrubs into tight geometrical forms unless they need to be confined or trained for a specific purpose. When plants are properly pruned, it's hard to tell that they've been pruned. 

Pruning:

  • Controls plant size and shape.
  • Keeps shrubby evergreens well-proportioned and dense.
  • Removes unwanted branches, waterspouts, suckers and undesirable fruiting structures that detract from plant appearance.

Prune to protect people and property

  • Remove dead branches.
  • Have hazardous trees taken down.
  • Prune out weak or narrow-angled tree branches that overhang homes, parking areas, sidewalks and anyplace falling limbs could injure people or damage property.
  • Eliminate branches that interfere with street lights, traffic signals and overhead wires. 
    • DO NOT attempt to prune near electrical and utility wires. Contact utility companies or city maintenance workers to handle it.
  • Prune branches that obscure vision at intersections.
  • For security purposes, prune shrubs or tree branches that obscure the entry to your home.

Use the right tools for pruning

The right tools make pruning easier and help you do a good job. Keeping tools well-maintained and sharp will improve their performance. There are many tools for pruning, but the following will probably suffice for most applications:

  • A good pair of pruning shears is probably one of the most important tools. Cuts up to 3/4 inches in diameter may be made with them.
  • Lopping shears are similar to pruning shears, but their long handles provide greater leverage needed to cut branches up to 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
  • Hedge shears are meant only for pruning hedges, nothing else. They usually cut succulent or small stems best.
  • Hand saws are very important for cutting branches over 1 inch in diameter. Many types of hand saws are available. Special tri-cut or razor tooth pruning saws cut through larger branches – up to 4 inches in diameter – with ease.
  • Pole saws allow for extended reach with a long handle, but they must be used carefully as it is difficult to achieve clean cuts with them.
  • Small chain saws are available for use on larger branches. Operators must wear protective clothing and exercise caution when using them. Never use chain saws to reach above your shoulders, or when you are on a ladder.

How to prune trees and shrubs

General pruning guidelines

  • Remove diseased, broken or dead branches.
  • Remove any downward-growing branches.
  • If two limbs are crossed, entangled or otherwise competing, remove one of them completely at its base.
  • Remove any limbs along the trunk that are bigger in diameter than the trunk.
  • Remove suckers coming up from the roots or low on the trunk.
  • Remove vigorous vertical branches, called watersprouts.
  • Make pruning cuts close to the branch collar at the base of the limb.
    • For larger limbs, start the cut from the underside of the limb to avoid tearing the bark.
  • Remove large limbs first, starting with the top of the tree.
  • "Thinning" cuts remove entire branches at the branch collar and are usually the recommended type of cut.
  • "Heading" cuts remove only part of a branch and encourage vegetation growth below the cut and are not as common.
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When to prune

The late dormant season (later winter to early spring) is best for most pruning.

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Reviewed in 2020

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