Pruning trees and shrubs can be a crucial management practice
that not only promotes healthy plants but also aids with safety
around trees. Healthier plants tend to provide more flowers, fruits
and/or nuts which can be a huge benefit to wildlife. The following
information goes over basics of pruning.
Pruning involves removal of branches and twigs to improve growth
and safety of plants. There are four main reasons to prune plants:
(1) training the plant, (2) improving plant health, (3) controlling
growth and (4) promoting safety.
Training the Plant
Pruning plants can be beneficial in training the plant to grow in
a desired form. Some pruning practices promote bushier plants while
others promote the abundance of flowers or fruit. In terms of
species like cedars and sweet gums which have a central leader,
little pruning is necessary other than to get rid of shoots which
may compete with the central leader.
Improving Plant Health
If you notice dead or dying branches on your tree or shrub that
show sign of disease or severe insect infestations, then many times
it is best to remove them from the plant. Furthermore, damaged
branches due to animals, storms or other forces should also be
removed to promote plant health. Branches which rub together can
cause problems with your trees or shrubs, so removing them helps
promote healthier plants and prevents weak branches from developing.
Removing excess branches can also improve the quality of flowers or
fruit. For example, pruning decreases the amount of material the
plant itself has to sustain, so by having fewer branches with fruit,
then more energy can be placed in making the fruit than maintaining
lots of branches.
Over time, plants tend to grow larger, and sometimes, the growth
can exceed space allotted for plants. When space is limited, regular
pruning of branches is often necessary. While pruning can help
control plant growth, it is important to choose your plants wisely
for the space they are intended to grow in.
Old trees and their branches can be safety hazards. Therefore,
one reason to prune would be to remove dead branches and trees which
may be a safety hazard. Weak or narrow-angled branches that hang
over homes parking areas and/or sidewalks should also be pruned to
eliminate possible injury to people or property. Branches which also
obstruct views or signs at road intersections should also be pruned.
DO NOT prune near electrical or utility wires, however! Contact
utility companies or city maintenance workers to tackle branches or
trees that interfere with power or utility lines.
Tools of the Trade
Many tools are available to assist people with pruning trees. The
type of tool used depends on the job at hand. If you are pruning
branches up to ½ inches in diameter, then simple pruning shears will
do. Pruning shears have small handles, so if you need to reach then
lopping shears are better to use. Lopping shears generally can cut
branches up to 2 inches thick. Pole pruners are also available for
hard to reach pruning jobs.
Pole pruners can reach several feet in the air and consist of a
hooked blade above and a cutter beneath. Generally, the cutter is
operated by pulling a lanyard. Poles can be made of a variety of
materials from wood to fiberglass. Many times, these are hard to
handle pruners and come with the danger of material falling down on
Pruning saws are best used for larger limbs. Pruning saws can be
bow saws or fixed-blades. Blades on these saws can be straight or
curved. Curved saws are beneficial due to the fact that they cut on
the draw stroke. For the really tough jobs, chain saws are the best
tool and are suitable for tree removal in addition to pruning. When
using a chain saw, it is important to wear safety glasses and
General Pruning Techniques
In general, pruning is best accomplished in the winter. However,
evergreens can be pruned anytime of the year. In addition, trees and
shrubs that flower in early spring (eastern redbud, dogwood,
serviceberries etc.) should be pruned immediately after flowering.
When pruning twigs and small branches, it is best to prune the
plant back to an intersecting branch or vigorous bud. If you choose
to cut to the bud, then choose a bud which is pointed in the
direction you want the new growth to pursue. When cutting to an
intersecting branch, choose a branch that forms an angle less than
45 degrees with the branch you are removing.
If you are removing a larger branch, then the cuts should be
flush with the collar of the branch. The branch collar is a bulge
formed at the base of a branch by the annual production of
overlapping layers of branch and stem tissues. Sometimes the branch
is referred to as the “shoulder”. This type of cut simulates the
area where trees would naturally shed their branches. If you cut
past the collar, then the protective zone of tissue is removed,
making the plant susceptible to fungi and disease. If the cut will
be over 1.5 inches in diameter on a live branch, then it is best to
use a 3-part cut. For the 3-part cut, you should saw the bottom of
the branch 6-12 inches from the trunk, a third of the way through
the branch. This cut prevents the falling branch from pulling stem
tissue away from the tree. After that, make a cut on the top
approximately 3 inches out from the first, leaving a stub on the
tree. The final cut should then cut the branch stub off at the
Trimming dead branches is generally much easier than live
branches as the collar is much more evident. Even with dead
branches, care should be taken not to damage the collar or the
living bark tissue on the main stem of the plant.
Pruning Mistakes to Avoid
- Do not cut a branch in the middle; make cuts back to a bud,
branch, or main trunk.
- Do not paint the cut after pruning.
- Do not remove more than 25% of the leaf surface of the plant
in any one year.
- Do not cut into a living tree collar.
- Do not make cuts flush with the trunk or parent branch.
- Do not prune trees or shrubs touching utility or power
- Do not forget to sanitize pruning equipment in between trees
For more detailed information on pruning trees, check out the
USDA publication here:
Invite Wildlife to Your Backyard!
For Additional Information, Contact:
Wildlife and Heritage Service
580 Taylor Ave, E-1
Annapolis, MD 21401
- Photo of woman using pole pruners, by Kerry Wixted