Gardening Pruning Shrubs Trees

A Beginner’s Guide to Tree Pruning and Trimming

By Emma Grant

Landscaping plays an important role in maintaining your property, as well as adding value to it. It even protects your home by making sure it won’t be damaged by a tree branches and roots. 

One part of landscaping involves looking after the trees on your property and that can mean pruning and trimming. While both involve cutting out a portion of a tree, trimming is primarily focused on aesthetics and refers to thinning out overgrown branches and managing the shape of the tree. On the other hand, pruning focuses on a tree’s health and involves removing the dead, diseased, and weak branches of a tree to promote its growth and protect it from diseases. 

When you both prune and trim, you get to maintain the aesthetics of the tree and overall yard and care for the tree’s health. However, doing these aren’t necessarily simple, as a poor job can do more harm than good, especially when you’re just starting out. Consequently, it’s important to educate yourself and consider getting expert help, which you can find at websites like canopytree.com.au. If you want to learn how to prune and trim your trees right, here’s a comprehensive guide that will help:

Tools You’ll Need

As with most tasks, you must have the right tools. So, before you start working in your garden or yard, you need to know which tools or equipment you’ll need to do the job efficiently and safely. The following are some necessary tools for tree pruning and trimming: 

  • Safety glasses—You’ll need these to keep any foreign objects from reaching and hurting your eyes.
  • Quality gloves—Another protective gear that you’ll definitely need is a high-quality pair of gloves, which will protect you from any splinters while cutting trees.
  • Hard hat—Since you’ll be working on trees and shrubs taller than yourself, you’ll need a hard hat. That will protect your head and prevent what could be a fatal injury in the event of a branch falling on you.
Pruning shears.
Secateurs are used for small branches and fine pruning. Photo: Isarapic, depositphotos.
  • Loppers and secateurs—These are the main tools for pruning and trimming your trees. Although both can be generally referred to as shears, secateurs are one-handed tools while loppers require two hands. Secateurs are for smaller branches while loppers are for bigger ones.
  • Long reach pruners—Also used to cut branches, long reach pruners allow you to get to parts of a tree that you can’t easily reach from on the ground. This allows you to prune higher places without risking an accident using a ladder. You’ll definitely want a hard hat if you use long reach pruners!
battery-operated chainsaw
There are now lightweight battery-operated chainsaws that any adult can manipulate safely. Photo: Nataliia Melnyc, depositphotos.
  • Saw—A cutting tool you’ll need is a saw to cut larger branches you can’t cut with shears. You can use a standard saw or a chainsaw, even a pole saw.

Aside from having these tools at hand, wear the proper clothes to avoid any kind of injury while doing the job, such as a pair of pants and a long-sleeved shirt.

The Both-Feet-on-the-Ground Rule

Arborist in tree pruning branches.
Only experienced professional arborists should prune trees by climbing into them. Photo: AdobeStock

Here’s a basic rule about tree pruning for home gardeners: keep both feet flat on the ground. Do not climb into the tree to prune it. Do not use a ladder. If you need either a ladder or to climb onto the tree (or another nearby object) in order to carry out pruning, it’s a job for a certified arborist!

Pruning and Trimming the Right Way

Now that you have the tools, you can start pruning and trimming your trees. Here’s how:

Tree trunk and branch showing the branch bark ridge and the branch collar.
You can safely cut just beyond the branch collar, shown here by the red dotted line. Photo: purdue.edu

To begin trimming and pruning your tree, you first need to find out what a branch collar is. The term branch collar refers to the thickened portion where the branch leaves the trunk. It’s from the collar that new bark will form to seal the wound. Much of the pruning you’ll do will be based on cutting just beyond the collar, leaving the smallest wound possible so new growth can come from the collar. It will then move inwards and cover the wound. The collar is usually most visible on the lower part of the branch.

This is not the same as the branch bark ridge. This is a section of rough, usually darkened, raised bark. It forms between the trunk and the branches meet and is most visible on the top and sides of the branch. The collar is just beyond the branch bark ridge.

After identifying the collar, cut off the branch just beyond it. You need to make your cut on the other side of the collar. That way your tree can easily form a callus over the cut surface. And that, in turn, will allow it to heal easily. When removing a branch, cut at an angle down and slightly away from the trunk to protect the wound that’s caused by pruning or trimming. 

3-Cut Pruning

Damage caused by a branch improperly removed that fell and tore the bark below. Photo: Joseph OBrien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org 

Large branches need special care when it comes to pruning. If you start sawing from the top of the branch down just outside the collar*, the whole thing is likely to fall down suddenly. This can rip the branch from the tree and leave a tear in the bark below that will prove difficult to fix. This is a case where you need to use 3-cut pruning.

*Don’t try cutting from below either, the branch will clamp down on your saw and prevent you from continuing!

Line drawing showing 3-part pruning.
3-cut pruning is a safe way of removing important branches. Ill.: Arbor Day Foundation

A. About 1 foot (30 cm) from the trunk, make an undercut, sawing the branch from below. Cut one third of the way in.

B. From 2 to 3 inches (5 à 6 cm) further out on the branch, make a second cut, this time a top cut, that is, from the top of the limb. As you saw through the branch, the entire thing will come loose and drop off neatly. This leaves no tear, since the branch’s link with the trunk was severed by the first cut.

C. That does leave a stub (called a snag). You have to remove if you want good healing. This is where you do the final cut, a nice smooth one, just outside the branch collar.

Helpful Hint: There is no need to apply wound dressing of any sort—pruning paint, pruning paste, pruning sealer, etc.—to tree wounds. Just leave the wound open to the air so Mother Nature can take care of it!

The Process of Pruning

You’ll be repeating this process as you find parts that you need to prune or want to trim. While pruning, also look for the suckers, which are branches sent up from the roots of your tree, at its base. These suckers are harmful to your tree’s overall health, as they prevent the growth of healthy branches. It’s best to remove them immediately when you spot them.

The next step is to remove dead branches. Dead branches don’t contribute to the tree’s health, so you’ll need to get rid of them too. Remove dying and overlapping branches as well. Dying branches hang loosely, have massive cuts and cracks, or are missing some bark. Overlapping branches rub against each other and destroy the bark. Cutting off these branches will prevent infections from developing and spreading on the tree. 

However, you should always prioritize your safety. If there are fallen branches on the road, branches touching or even close to electrical wires*, or branches that seem like they’ll fall on houses, people, or streets, you need to steer clear of them. Hire an arborist to remove them for you instead. An arborist will make sure that the job is done safely.

*Never prune within 10 feet (3 m) of a high-tension power line.

Conclusion

Landscaping is more than just about improving the aesthetics of your yard. It offers a way to safeguard your home and care for your trees through pruning and trimming. Pruning and trimming may seem difficult and scary to do when you’re a newbie, but with this guide, you’ll be able to keep your trees healthy and safe and promote their growth. 

Author Bio

Emma Grant is a landscape designer. She plans, designs, and supervises the development of external land areas, like gardens and commercial sites. She shares her advice on landscape design and gardening through guest blogging. She loves to travel and visit art museums and parks.

1 comment on “A Beginner’s Guide to Tree Pruning and Trimming

  1. This is a difficult topic for me to read about. I have worked for some of the most qualified arborists in California. Unfortunately though, and as you are aware, the arboricultural and other horticultural industries attract the less that exemplary sort. Much of the damage that I inspect among trees is incurred by those hired to care for the trees, or to maintain the landscape around them. The difference with trees, relative to other components of the landscape, is that they are more difficult to correct or replace. For example, annuals with problems get replaced within the year, regardless. Arboricultural problems can kill a tree that has been part of a landscape for centuries. The procedures are very expensive. I write about arboriculture about annually, but am hesitant to do so because I can not say much in my brief articles. I suppose that we should instead write more about it.

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