Pruning a tree under good circumstances can be like going to the barbershop for a little sprucing up, if you’ll forgive the pun. Under harsher conditions, pruning can come closer to removing a gangrenous finger or a frostbitten toe as you take off necrotic, diseased or already dead material in order to improve the health of the patient.

Either way, there are a few common-sense techniques to follow to get the most good out of a pruning session. At the risk of sounding mystical, the guiding principle is this: When you prune a tree, you are guiding the flow of its energy—that is, its sap and therefore the direction of its future growth. Most trees make an effort to grow as tall as they’re supposed to, which just stands to reason. If you want them to achieve that potential, then you’ll want to be pruning unproductive undergrowth, as well as suckers and dead understory branches.

That said, arborists typically recommend a two-to-one ratio: that is, the canopy should not be more than twice the height of the trunk. A taller canopy runs the risk of making the tree top-heavy and susceptible to wind damage.

If, on the other hand, you want to keep a tree close to the ground, then you’ll want to trim at the top. In the same way, trimming to keep branches from banging into a structure may lend the tree a lopsided look, but it will keep walls and windows safe and do the tree no harm. Most certainly, you want to keep an eye out on trees growing near electrical service or power lines and prune to give them clearance. (If the tree in question has gotten within a few feet of power lines, put down your tools and call a tree service. That dangerous situation is best left to the pros.)

Otherwise, the reason to prune is to remove dead or diseased branches, and that’s really all that’s wanted. Get too zealous with your pruning shears or chainsaw and you may soon find that you’ve done more harm than good—so prune with a light hand, at least until you get a good idea of how a particular tree responds to your efforts.

Tree Pruning Tips
Close cuts…Cut large main branches as close to the tree’s trunk as possible—but do not cut into the trunk itself!

Prune Away!

Let’s get started. First, suit up. Put on a long-sleeve, heavy shirt, protective eye gear and leather gloves. If you’re dealing with branches that are hanging above your head, no matter how inconvenient, you always want to be above whatever branch you’re cutting, and you should be wearing a hardhat.

This gets us to a second set of considerations, namely the tools you’re going to use. Pruning shears will work fine for most woods that are an inch thick or less. For wood a couple of inches thick you’ll want to have a heavier duty hand lopper—wide-jawed shears with long handles—to give you leverage. A pole saw is good for clearing out overhead material (while cutting from a safe angle) and it’s also good for giving your muscles a workout. If the wood is thicker or you have a lot of it to cut, then a reciprocating saw with a specially made pruning blade (typically 13 inches or longer, with a slight crescent shape) will more than pay for itself in saving you wear and tear. And if the wood is bigger than that pruning blade can comfortably cut through, then you’re in chainsaw territory. If that’s the case, and you need to get up on a ladder to get above the limb you’re cutting, then stop and call a professional with access to a cherry picker and other special equipment. You really, really don’t want a chainsaw falling on your head.

pruning a tree
When you prune a tree,you are guiding the flow of its energy—that is, its sap and thereore the direction of its future growth

When & Why To Prune

Just when to prune a tree is a matter of some debate. As a general rule, if you’ve planted or moved a tree, avoid cutting it for the first year or two in its new location. It takes trees a long time to recover from transplant shock, and pruning can definitely be a shock to the system. Dead material should be removed whenever it’s detected. Otherwise, the rule of thumb for most kinds of trees is to prune when the trees start to bud in spring, so that you can easily tell when a branch is dead or alive and the tree has ample time to recover before the next winter. Light thinning, though, can occur anytime up until midsummer in most climates.

Apart from cutting away dead material, pruning is most often done to encourage leaf lushness by cutting off the terminal buds—the buds that are at the very end of a branch. Doing so diverts energy to the lateral buds, the ones that emerge along the sides of a branch. Pruning just ahead of a leaf node, where new growth forms, will create stronger branches. In all this, give thought to how the tree in question looks in nature. Unless you’re going for a topiary or bonsai effect, you’ll want to follow nature’s rules in shaping your “domesticated” tree.

Prune wisely, prune well and enjoy watching your trees flourish after their visit to the beautician. 

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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