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Past Articles Library | Trees | How to Prune a Tree

This growing season has been rough on trees.  Snow, ice and high winds have damaged many trees.  This has left many homeowners in a pickle.  Should they try to prune the tree(s) themselves or hire someone to do it for them?  Believe it or not, you can prune your own trees as long as you have the basic garden equipment and desire to learn.

Learning how to prune a tree should begin when the tree is planted.  Not only should you take care when planting your tree, you should also take a hard look at the tree after it is in the ground.  Are branches crossing?  Is there more than one leader, which is the center branch that goes up from the trunk?  Are there damaged branches?  If the answer is yes to any of these questions then you will need to prune your tree.

When it comes to pruning, you will need to understand some basics.  First, if the branch is more like a twig, simply remove it to where it is connected to the branch.  Second, make sure the cut is as flush as possible with the branch and make it at an angle.  Third, never cut half a branch off.  Not only is this unsightly but it will cause the branch to grow at unusual angle and will distort the natural shape.  Fourth, while you may be tempted to add a coat of paint or tar to the wound, do not.   This treatment can make the cut less noticeable, you can hold moisture and disease against the wound.  This sealant will then cause the wound to rot instead of heal.   Fifth, always clean your tools before proceeding.  To do this, you can wipe down the tools with rubbing alcohol or soak the tools in a solution of soapy water and a capful of bleach.  Let the tools soak for at least 10 minutes, rinse, and then let set out in the sun to finish sterilizing.  Finally, if the tree is near power lines or roofs, consider hiring a professional.

Pruning Tree Schedule

A pruning tree schedule should be established the first day the tree is placed in the ground.  Once the tree is securely planted, it is time to take a look at the shape.  First, remove any branches that are crossing or rubbing together and those damaged.  If left alone, rubbing branches will eventually become grafted together.  Once that is done, take a look to see if there is more than one leader.  A tree leader is the branch that will be located in the center of the tree, will grow upward and is the focal point by which all other branches will be pruned.   If you have more than one leader a decision will need to be made.  After that decision has been made, prune accordingly.

Next, align the branches so that they alternate up the trunk.   Once this is done, you have completed year one’s pruning schedule.

Continue removing damaged or dead branches but the next major pruning schedule is around year 3 to 4.  At this point, cut off any suckers and unwanted sprouts that are growing along the crown.  Next, remove any competing leaders, if they exist.  Remove any branches that are rubbing or growing in undesirable directions.   Once that is done, it is time to open up the tree a little bit.  This simple step will increase the amount of sunlight that can reach the interior of the tree, increasing air circulation, and reducing plant disease.  It also increases the available water and nutrients for the tree by cutting back competition.  Finally, remove a few of the lower branches but do not remove all of them.   Gradual removal will help create a better looking and stronger trunk verses removing all the lower branches at one time.

The next scheduled pruning should occur when the tree is 5 to 7 years old.  At this point, remove all lower branches that are below human head level.  This will aid in the shape of the tree but will also make adding mulch and fertilizer easier.  Examine the tree to see if you need to remove a branch here or there to keep the tree shape and cut back any side branches that extend past the natural drip line. 

If you have done your pruning properly, you should have a good looking tree for many years to come.  But do not sit on your laurels when it comes to pruning.  Constant upkeep of trees during their dormant period, which is late fall through winter, will reduce branch breakage due to winter winds, ice, and snow.  But what do you do if you do have a broken branch?  Well, the first step is to survey the damage and come up with a plan.

First, when you see a broken branch in a tree the first inkling is to go out and cut it.  But do not make this move.   More damage can occur not only to the tree but to personal property, if you do not have a plan.   To begin this planning process, one must first look at where the break is and its surrounding environment.  Is the break near a power line, house or car?  Is it a large or small?  Can you reach the break safely?  All of these questions and more will need to be answered before moving on.

Once you are confident in your ability to move on, you will need to get some supplies together.  Keep in mind though, that this is a short list and only includes basic supplies.  Your supply list should be based on the size of the branch and its location to its surroundings.  The basic supplies you will need for any tree trimming activity includes a ladder, rope, hand saw, and hand pruners.  At this point, you may have noticed that I did not include a chain saw.  While you may see many tree trimming crews with chain saws, I would not recommend using one unless you are confident with your ability and you have help.  Many over confident tree trimmers have lost human limbs to chain saws, so use with caution.

Once you have your equipment lined up, clean and disinfect as described previously.  After that is done, you are ready to remove your tree damage.  If the branch is very small, simply nip if off at the closest branch or take it off at the truck.  If, on the other hand, the branch is larger, you will need to remove it in sections.  To do this, first examine the branch and come up with a plan to remove it in thirds.  Doing this will lighten the load and reduce the chances of the branch breaking off and tearing the bark along the trunk.   Once you have a plan, set up your ladder safely and begin cutting.  The first cut should come up from the bottom of the branch.  Next, do the same cut from the top until that portion of the branch has been removed.  Repeat this process until the branch has been taken to the trunk.  Once you get to the trunk, if you notice torn bark cut away the ragged edges with hand pruners.   At this point, leave the cut alone and do not apply any type of wound sealant. 

If the branch is large or in an area that could be damaged if it fell, consider tying it off in sections to hold the weight, prevent bark tearing, and reduce the chance of property damage.  

If your pruning has been successful, you should see branches attached to the trunk through a U-shaped crotch or joint and a well-defined branch collar.  This branch collar is an indication of a strong branch attachment and thick bark. 

While pruning is something that is put off until you have tree damage.   You can reduce your chances of damage with a pruning schedule for any tree you plant.  This simple habit can save you time, money and most importantly trees.

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