Pruning is always an intimidating topic for new gardeners, especially when it comes to trimming trees! I know how it feels, I’ve been there. But don’t worry, in most cases you can easily prune your own trees without worrying about hiring a professional. In this post, I am going to tell you when to prune trees, and then show you exactly how to trim tree branches yourself, step-by-step.
BEFORE YOU GET STARTED…
But before you get out your tree pruning tools, it’s a good idea to do a quick online search to look up how to prune the specific type of tree you have to make sure there aren’t any special pruning techniques for it.
Some types of trees (like fruit or flowering trees) prefer to be pruned after they are done blooming, or at other times of the year. Also, most types of evergreen trees don’t need to be pruned, except to remove any dead or undesirable growth.
And never, never try pruning your own trees if they are anywhere near power lines. It’s best to just let the pros handle that!
REASONS TO PRUNE TREES
There are several reasons to prune trees, and it’s a good idea to make tree maintenance a regular habit in order to keep them growing their best.
The first time most people think about pruning trees is usually after a storm causes damage to the branches, or if the lower branches of the tree are getting in the way, or the branches are posing a hazard of some kind.
Other reasons for pruning trees could be to encourage flowers and fruit production, to trigger the tree to grow larger, to help prevent disease by allowing better airflow, or simply to shape the tree to make it look nicer.
WHEN TO PRUNE TREES
The ideal time of year to prune trees is when the tree is dormant. So, in general, the best time to trim tree branches would sometime during the winter.
Pruning while the tree is still dormant will lower the risk of disease and pest infestations in the open cut wounds. Pruning trees before spring also helps to promote healthy and vigorous new growth.
In harsh climates like mine here in Minnesota, it’s best to wait until the coldest weather has passed before pruning trees. So for us, the best time to trim trees is during the late winter or early spring.
In milder climates, you can trim a tree anytime during the winter while it is dormant.
Don’t worry, you can still trim tree branches during the spring and summer months if you need to. And dead or damaged branches can be removed at any time. Just try to avoid pruning trees on wet, rainy days, or days when it’s super humid outside.
PROPER TREE PRUNING TECHNIQUES
Improper pruning can leave the tree at risk for disease and pests. So before you start, it’s important to understand exactly how to trim tree branches properly.
When tree branches are pruned properly, the wound will callus over making a nice thick circle all the way around the cut. It’s important for the callus to form correctly in order to protect the tree from problems down the road, like rot caused by water pooling in the wound.
1. Locate the branch collar before cutting – Once you decide which branch you’re going to remove, the first thing to do is locate the branch collar. The branch collar is the area around where the branch is growing out of the tree. It’s easier to see on some trees than it is on others – but look for a ridge, a circle, or an area where the bark is thicker.
It’s important to make the cut to remove your branches from just outside of the branch collar so that the tree can heal properly. Also, be sure not to damage the branch collar when cutting limbs, or the tree won’t be able to form a good callus (which can leave the tree at risk for rotting later on).
2. Make your cuts at a downward angle – As you trim the tree, it’s important to make your cuts at a downward angle so that water can’t settle into the wound. If water is able to settle in the wound, it could eventually cause rotting.
3. Never trim branches that are growing upward – When you’re first learning how to trim tree branches, a common mistake is to remove the branches that are growing straight up.
But if you prune the tree branches that are growing straight up, that will leave a wound that is facing up where water can easily settle, which can cause the tree to rot over time.
4. Don’t prune a branch too long – You also want to take care that you’re not leaving too long of a stub when removing tree branches. Leaving too long of a stub will also make it difficult for the tree to form a proper callus.
HOW TO TRIM TREE BRANCHES STEP-BY-STEP
Now that you know the proper techniques for how to trim tree branches, let’s talk about the steps to follow when pruning trees. Here’s a quick list of the steps, and then the more detailed steps are below.
1. Trim off any suckers growing at the base of the trunk
2. Remove all the dead or dying branches
3. Prune out unwanted or hazardous branches
4. Remove any damaged or weak branches
5. Trim out overlapping branches that rub together
Step 1: Pruning suckers – Suckers are weak, weedy looking branches that grow out of the base of the trunk. These suckers will never become desirable branches, and only steal energy from the tree. So, be sure to keep pruning suckers as you see them growing.
Step 2: Remove dead or dying branches – Removing the dead branches is the best place to start, and will make the rest of the tree pruning steps easier too.
Once you have removed all of the dead branches, it’s easier to see what you’re working with, and spot other branches that need to be pruned next.
Step 3: Prune out unwanted or hazardous branches – Branches that are hanging low, touching your house, or are causing some kind of a safety hazard can be trimmed next.
Most of the time the goal here is just to raise the height of the tree canopy or remove the obstruction, which can usually be done by trimming small branches, rather than removing an entire tree limb.
Step 4: Remove damaged and weak branches – Tree branches that have been damaged in a storm, or are otherwise broken or weakened should be removed even if they are still alive.
Damaged branches are an invitation for pests and disease, can become hazardous, and can also be a place for water to settle and start to rot the branch.
Step 5: Trim out crossing branches – Now that you’ve got most of the tree cleaned up, it’ll be easy to spot branches that are overlapping and rubbing against each other. If tree branches rub together, they can damage each other over time.
Remove both branches if they are both damaged, otherwise either remove the damaged one, or the smallest one of the two.
MORE TREE TRIMMING ADVICE & PRUNING TIPS
As you’re just learning how to trim tree branches yourself, the best thing to do is to start small and work your way into it slowly. Don’t overdo it! Start with one or two of the steps above, and then wait until next year for the rest.
Be careful when removing large tree limbs from your trees. Removing large limbs can be risky to the health of a tree. It’s best to leave them unless there’s a good reason to remove them, like if they are dead, damaged, diseased, or causing some kind of hazard.
As you’re trimming the tree, be sure to take a step back and look at it from all angles to check the shape. It’s easy to get carried away with trimming branches, only to realize the tree looks lopsided after you step out from underneath it.
Never trim off more that 1/4 of the living tree branches at one time. If you need to trim more than that, do some of it this year, and then wait to do the rest over the next few years.
If you’ve never pruned your trees before, it’s best to start small and work your way into it. You don’t want to go overboard and remove too many of the branches.
If you’re nervous that you’ll overdo it, just start by removing any dead or damaged branches, and then wait until next year to look for the other branches that need to be pruned.
Once you get understand how to trim tree branches yourself, and get into the habit of regular tree maintenance, you’ll feel comfortable doing it all at once.