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Tips, Tricks, and Techniques for Pruning Trees

Trees are amazing, they provide everything from oxygen and shelter to fun and food. But their survival depends on proper care—that includes adequate pruning. Not just any hack-job will do,...

Trees are amazing. Depending on their use, they can do a menagerie of things for us. A tree, like an oak, can make a mighty statement in the front yard as a landscape focal point. A back yard magnolia tree is the perfect place for a tire swing and treehouse. Head on over to the park and a willow tree is where I’m going to layout a blanket to shade my family from the sun during a family picnic. Plant an orange, mandarin, and tangerine 10 feet apart from one another and you'll have a mini orchard that will provide vitamin-C packed sweet nectar with nutrients to fight off colds and scurvy.  Incorporate a few stone fruit and nut trees into the mix and life couldn’t be better. There’s a tree for every reason and season, but they are living things and as mighty as they may be, they do need to be cared for.

The life of a tree can be counted into the decades, for some hundreds of years, but its care is paramount to its success.  The best way to ruin a trees integrity, value, and flowering/fruiting capabilities is by pruning it incorrectly.  Today we are going to explore the tips and tricks of professional tree pruning pro’s (arborists) don’t want you to know about. But first, we need to expand upon the differences of the various trees and the factors that need to be considered prior to pruning. 

Various Types of Trees and Considerations for Pruning

Deciduous vs Evergreen Trees

Let’s categorize trees into two simple sectors:  deciduous and evergreen.  Deciduous trees lose their leaves beginning in the fall (and that’s the reason we call it fall because leaves don’t autumn, do they?). Then, they go into a winter slumber ‘naked as a Jaybird’ and when early spring comes to warm them up they wake up and do their thing. Evergreens, on the other hand, are trees that do what their name implies—stay green, forever!  During all four seasons, they drop leaves but never all at once. Unlike their deciduous counterparts, they don’t fall asleep. They just keep on going but they do slow down a bit when it gets cold.

Flowering vs Fruiting Trees—it’s confusing   

Fruiting is subjective. “Technically” almonds, walnuts, and pecans don’t fruit because they’re nut trees. However, today we’ll call them fruiting trees! Under strict terms, citrus aren’t fruit either, they’re citrus – except for right now, we’ll lump them into the fruiting category with stone fruit (which actually do fruit): peaches, nectarines, pears, etc. 

Flowering is also subjective because not all trees flower. Some of them get flowers that are considered NHI (Not Horticulturally Important), while others get anything from absolutely nothing to ginormous flowers. On the fun side, if it fruits, it also flowers.

Root Quencher Fun Fact.  Alive and well but hidden in the White Mountains of California in Inyo National Forest, "Methuselah" is an ancient bristlecone pine that is the oldest living tree (4800 years+) in the world, but WAIT!   Arbor News Update...Methuselah has recently been dethroned by an unnamed bristlecone pine thought to be older, yet!  More on this in coming months.

Tree Shapes  

All trees have canopies of different shapes and sizes. The size of the canopy gives us an idea of the size and shape of its root system. In the broadest terms, they kind of mirror what the canopy looks like. Basically, what you see on top is what is on the bottom. This is important to know—especially when watering the tree. If your subsurface irrigation is past the furthest leaf of the tree (also known as the dripline), then the tree won’t get watered! Keep it within a foot or two, at the minimum, from the dripline and at least 16” away from the trunk. This is especially true for young trees.

You would think all trees have a rounded shape, but in reality they can be columnar, triangular, oval, and even bush-like. It would take a whole book to learn how to prune each tree shape, but for our purposes we are going to use a true and tried technique that just might make you an arborist so keep reading on!

Tools for Pruning

In the word of pruning tools, you get what you pay for. If you go to a store that sells everything for a buck, those hand pruners may last a couple of clips before you have to throw them away. But, if you do your research and get heavy-duty pro tools, they’ll last a lifetime when taken care of properly. To give you a head start, here's a tip:  the pros get tools from Fanno, ARS, Corona, Hickok, Dramm, Centurion, and Vaca.

Also keep in mind that you will need tools large enough to do the job right. For instance, you can’t cut a 2” branch with a 1 ½” pair of loppers. Get a 3” pair to handle the 2” branch. It’ll make your job easier and might come in handy when making the three-point cut discussed later in this article.

When it comes to tree pruning tools, at the very least you’ll need the following: 

  • bypass hand pruner (aka secateurs)
  • bypass lopper and tree saw
  • pole saw with lopper attachment to reach up tall into the tree without needing a ladder
  • chainsaw (electric, gas or battery operated) for cutting large pieces (to use as firewood)

Safety First. 

Before you get all Ninja and start hacking away on trees we must understand and respect the danger of the profession. Arborist work is the number one blue-collar job that kills the most number of people each year. Simple things like falling off a ladder, tumbling out of a tree with a running chainsaw, and (probably the most unlikely way) confusing a power line for a branch can all lead to death, serious injury, or disablement! 

All of the pruning tips we’ll be mentioning further is from ground level—nothing on a ladder nor in a tree. Otherwise, call a licensed, bonded, and insured professional from the International Society of Aboriculture (ISA) to do the work for you, but read on to become savvy on how to do it. 

Root Quencher Know-The-Law:  That California oak tree (and her cousins) might be sitting in your front yard on property you own, but if it has a 6” trunk or lager you’ll have to get a permit to trim it.  Even if it poses a danger, you still have to get permission to prune or cut it down. Check with your local municipality for rules, regulations, and permit costs. 


Reasons Trees Are Pruned

Trees are pruned for many reasons:

  • Safety, producing flowers/fruit/nuts
  • Building a stronger root system
  • Managing size
  • Lessoning the chance of  blowing down in the wind
  • Training to grow how you want it to grow (gardeners are such control freaks).

Top Tree Pruning Techniques the Pro’s Don’t Want You To Know

When to Prune Trees

Deciduous trees are best pruned when they’ve lost their leaves and are in their plant hibernation, which is fall/winter.  At this point they are just…sticks!  And the best part about it is that you can see all of the branches, so you can be strategic how to prune. Because the root system isn’t active, neither are the juices that move up and down the phloem and xylum that transports water to roots, leaves, and shoots.  In turn, there will be less to no bleeding when you make a cut and the wound will heal with nature.

Evergreens, on the other hand, are always active. Sure they slow down in winter, but they are still doing their job. You can tell this because there are leaves on the plant creating starches and sugars, making photosynthesis possible. Therefore, you can actually prune evergreens all year round with the understanding that it is best done AFTER they have fruited.

Navel oranges, for instance, are usually done fruiting in February. As soon as the last one is picked, you’ll have to jump on it because flowers will start budding really soon.   


Tree Pruning Chart

How Much To Cut When Pruning Trees  

Each tree is different, yet the same. Stone fruit are always cut back to the previous year’s growth, but finding that can be tough. White and Brown figs are pruned down extremely hard to the actual trunk, but their cousins Black figs grow on last year’s branches. Treat them like white/browns and they’ll never produce!

When in doubt, follow my 1/3rd rule of pruning. Only remove 1/3rd of the canopy size and 1/3rd of all the branches inside of the canopy. And for Pete’s sake, don’t allow any branches touch the ground! That’s a perfect way for insects to crawl up to take residence. 

Root Quencher Warning:  Hat racking destroys ornamental trees, weakens them, and might be illegal in your neighborhood or state.  Hat racking is the barbaric practice of cutting everything off the tree and leaving only giant stumps 15’, 20’, 30’ tall.  Eucalyptus trees are cut like this often. Don’t do it! 

Some trees, like camphor and citrus, will tell you which branches they want cut off as they’ll actually die on the tree!  Wayward branches are always an indication that it needs to be removed, as are suckers at the base of a tree.  

Making the Perfect Cut

This technique is done with hand pruners or loppers. Every tree has buds and it’s important to identify where they are located on a branch. On most trees, the buds alternate around a branch. On some—like sycamore, apple, horse chestnut, and ash—the buds are opposite of each other and that’s important to know when making the perfect cut.  

A cut for ALL trees needs to be done with the bud facing out of the center of the tree. Prune it a 45 degree angle ¼” above the bud. For opposite buds you’ll do the same but before moving on, scrape off the bud growing towards the inside of the canopy. This will eliminate any chance of that inner bud overtaking the other one.

Rubbing branches need to eliminated to open the inside canopy so light and air can bathe the fruit to ripen. One plant that wants to have its leaves protect the fruit and trunk, are avocados. They sunburn easily, so don’t get too wild on these plants when pruning.

Three-Point Cut   

When a branch is too large for a pair of hand pruners or loppers, we arm ourselves with a tree saw to make the cut.  A three-point cut is designed to eliminate the chance of the bark tearing off, as it might when only one cut is made. Focusing on the branch that needs to be removed, measure 3”- 4” away from the trunk. Make an undercut until the saw begins to bind. 

Now, 2” further away from the trunk, slowly cut as far through the branch as you can. The weight of the branch will most likely slowly bend and possibly break where you made the undercut. Once the branch is removed, the final cut is as close to the trunk as you can get without cutting into the collar of the tree, which kind of looks like a ring where the branch and trunk meet. Slice through and if it’s a healthy tree you won't even need tree mastic to paint the wound. Nature will tell the collar to close the gap.

One of the miracles of plants is in their ability to bounce back and rejuvenate in case what is called in the industry, a “boo-boo”, is made. Have patience when pruning. Look at the tree as if painting a picture on a canvas. Stand back, stare, and imagine what the tree will look like of you remove that branch. If you make a ‘boo-boo”, don’t panic, take a breath and adjust accordingly. As long as you don’t hat rack the tree, it may not produce for a year or two, but it should come back again, at which point you can start over with a little more wisdom in those pruners.


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