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Pruning can be extremely helpful if done right and extremely harmful if done wrong.  It is vital to understand the proper way to prune - from timing to tools to trimming.

A tree may need pruning for a variety of reasons:

  • to remove diseased or storm-damaged branches
  • to thin the crown to permit new growth and better air circulation
  • to reduce the height of a tree
  • to remove obstructing lower branches
  • to shape a tree for design purposes

Once the decision has been made to prune, your next decision is whether or not to tackle the job yourself. In the case of a large tree where you want to remove big branches in the upper area of the crown, it may be best to hire experts. Large tree pruning, in particular, can require climbing and heavy saws or even cherry-pickers and chain saws.

How to Prune

Whether the tree is large or small, the key is to prune the unwanted branch while protecting the stem or trunk wood of the tree. Tree branches grow from stems at nodes and pruning always takes place on the branch side of a stem-branch node. Branches and stems are separated by a lip of tissue called a stem collar which grows out from the stem at the base of the branch. All pruning cuts should be made on the branch side of this stem collar. This protects the stem and the other branches that might be growing from it. It also allows the tree to heal more effectively after the prune. To prevent tearing of the bark and stem wood, particularly in the case of larger branches, use the following procedure:

1. Make a small wedge shaped cut on the underside of the branch just on the branch side of the stem collar. This will break the bark at that point and prevent a tear from running along the bark and stem tissue.

2. Somewhat farther along the branch, starting at the top of the branch, cut all the way through the branch leaving a stub end.

3. Finally, make a third cut parallel to and just on the branch side of the of the stem collar to reduce the length of the stub as much as possible.

When to Prune

For most trees, the dormant season, late fall or winter, is the best time to prune although dead branches can and should be removed at any time. Pruning during the dormant period minimizes sap loss and subsequent stress to the tree. It also minimizes the risk of fungus infection or insect infestation as both fungi and insects are likely to be in dormancy at the same time as the tree. Finally, in the case of deciduous trees, pruning when the leaves are off will give you a better idea of how your pruning will affect the shape of the tree. Some fruiting and flowering trees should be pruned at other times of the year, depending on whether they flower on the previous year's growth or not. After pruning, it is always a good idea to give the tree a good fertilizing so that the tree can naturally close the pruning wounds and to reduce the stress placed on the tree.

How Much To Prune

When deciding how much to prune a tree, as little as possible is often the best rule of thumb. All pruning place stress on a tree and increase its vulnerability to disease and insects. Never prune more than 25% of the crown and ensure that living branches compose at least 2/3 of the height of the tree. Pruning more risks fatally damaging your tree. In some cases, storm damage, height reduction to avoid crowding utility lines or even raising the crown to meet municipal bylaws, your pruning choices are made for you. But even in these instances, prune as little as you can get away with.

Mature trees need to be pruned regularly to remove dead and diseased wood and to remove excessive weight from the ends of branches. The process called "end-weight reduction" will reduce the likelihood of branch breakage and hazards. Make sure trained professionals prune your tree. Inadequate pruning compromises the health of trees. Topping can ruin the trees natural structure, starve trees by removing a high percentage of food-producing leaves, create openings for disease, and initiate the tree's eventual demise.

Topping and other poor pruning techniques disfigures trees and makes them susceptible to diseases and premature death. When pruning leaves stumps, trees are unable to compartmentalize the decay and heal over the wound so fungus, bacteria and other pests/pathogens enter the heart of the tree and cause decay. Leaves produce the food for trees. When greater than 20% of a tree's leaves are removed, the tree is unable to provide enough food which results in root death and disease.

Pruning or injuring trees that belong to the city or a neighbor is against California law and may result in a lawsuit against you for the full value of the tree and any loss of value to the neighboring property. This includes branches that come onto your property. If branches are not pruned properly and the tree is disfigured or mortally wounded then you may also be liable.