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Home » Tree Pruning » Tree Pruning Basics

Tree Pruning Basics

Why prune?

The purpose of tree pruning is to regulate and control growth, fruiting and flowering and to correct previous bad pruning. Pruning also allows smaller weaker specimens to thrive where, if left to nature, they would not be able to compete with more dominant trees and shrubs.

When to prune your trees

The ideal time for the majority of tree pruning is early to mid winter. During late winter and early spring, the sap is beginning to rise in preparation for bud development and any pruning during this period will cause bleeding from the pruning wounds which will not stop until leafing begins.

Certain trees such as maples, cherries, birches and walnuts have particularly intense sap circulation and are best pruned at the end of the summer as the sap begins to descend.

Basic pruning tips

Always try to prune back to either another lateral branch or a bud. This will prevent a dead stub (snag) forming. Cherry is particularly prone to dead wood after incorrect pruning. Certain species such as field maple and willow will produce lots of new growth from pruning cuts regardless of where you make the cut. This is called epicormic growth and may need to be removed again at a later stage.

When pruning branches back to the main stem of the tree, try to avoid making the final cut absolutely flush with the trunk otherwise the tree will have to deal with a much larger wound. Some species of tree have a ‘saddle’ or crease in the bark where the branch leaves the main stem; just outside of the saddle is the ideal point at which to make your final cut.

tree saddle tree pruning cut

When removing dead or diseased wood, cut back to healthy sound wood to ensure proper healing will occur. Good callus formation is only possible on healthy wood.

During pruning, step back occasionally and take a look at the overall shape to make sure it maintains an attractive, balanced look. Does the tree still look natural?

Removing large branches

Don’t try to remove large branches with a single pruning cut. It is much easier and safer to cut the limb into sections whilst it is still attached to the tree. Large branches can weigh a considerable amount and can tear or split suddenly, causing damage to the tree, or anybody nearby.

Pruning conifers

The majority of conifers found in gardens are of the cypress variety such as Lleylandii and the Monterey Cypress (macrocarpa).

Species such as Lleylandii are often planted as a boundary hedge and are usually trimmed twice a year. Single specimens can be gently shaped with hedge cutters to help maintain the desired size although care must be taken not to remove too much foliage otherwise brown patches will develop. Large Leyllandii can be reduced in height by up to 50% as long as there remains sufficient foliage to sustain the tree but bear in mind this is likely to encourage lateral growth as the main central stems will not produce any new shoots.

When pruning certain species such as the Monterey cypress (macrocarpa), it is advisable to prune back to another limb to reduce the possibility of deadwood. Many conifers do not produce new growth from pruning cuts so it’s important to leave as much foliage as possible on any branches you do cut back.

Pruning techniques - Snap cut

This method of cutting branches allows you to ‘snap’ the section of branch after cutting, allowing for more control of larger pieces. You can then make your final pruning cut. A snap cut consists of two cuts approximately two thirds of the way through each side of the branch. The cuts do not meet each other, but are mismatched on the branch. In order for the snap cut to work properly, the two cuts must overlap otherwise the branch will not separate easily.

The snap cut technique can be used on both vertical stems and horizontal branches. If cutting a horizontal branch, make the two cuts at 90 degrees to the horizontal otherwise the branch may snap under its own weight. The snap cut can be used with both hand pruning saws and chainsaws.

snap cut   snap cut finished

Topping trees - a bad thing to do

Topping a tree involves removing most of the crown back down to the main stem. Unless the tree has been pollarded in the past or is a species that can cope with a severe crown reduction, topping is to be avoided. Even tolerant species such as willow and hazel often develop an unattractive growth habit after being topped.

Buying tree pruning tools

The following links provide buying advice for choosing various tree pruning tools and equipment.

After pruning your trees, why not use a shredder to produce garden compost?