Pruning your shade trees is an important part of maintaining your property and keeping trees healthy. However, it can be a confusing process if you don’t know where to start. This guide will walk you through the basics of shade tree pruning so that you can confidently take care of your trees.

Whether you’re looking to remove dead branches or sculpt your tree’s shape, these tips will help get the job done right.

It’s important to note, this guide is meant for pruning shade trees only, not fruit trees. Using these methods to prune fruit trees can lower fruit production and quality. Additionally, different fruit trees are pruned according to their unique needs, often in ways that would be harmful to shade trees. If you’d like to prune fruit trees, check out these fruit tree pruning tips from the UC Master Gardeners.

Pruning for good structure

It’s important to start pruning trees when they are young to give them a foundation to build a strong branching structure. Strategically trimming branches during the first few years of a tree’s life will help ensure that your tree stays strong and healthy throughout its lifecycle.

As your tree grows, continue to prune it to maintain a good structure. The main goal is to remove any weak, damaged, or rubbing branches. These can eventually lead to bigger problems like disease or breakage.

In general, the rule of thumb for pruning shade trees is to make sure that no branch is more than 1/3 of the diameter of the trunk. This ensures that your tree can support the weight of its branches and won’t be at risk for breakage.

Pruning for clearance

Another common reason to prune shade trees is to clear away any branches that are blocking sidewalks, driveways, or other areas on your property. Not only is this a safety hazard, but it can also damage your property if branches are left to rub against it.

When pruning for clearance, always make sure that you’re not removing more than 25% of the canopy. Removing too much at once can put stress on the tree and make it more susceptible to disease. Additionally, make sure that you don’t leave any stubs when pruning. These can damage the tree and invite pests and disease.

Pruning for shape

In addition to maintaining a tree’s structure and clearing away unwanted branches, you may also want to prune your shade trees for aesthetic reasons. Pruning can help sculpt the tree into a certain shape or size, which can be especially helpful if you have a small yard.

When pruning for shape, always start with the branches that are crossing or rubbing against each other. These should be the first to go to avoid damage to the tree. Next, focus on any branches that are growing out of the tree’s natural shape. These can be trimmed back to create a more polished look.

As with any other type of pruning, make sure that you don’t remove more than 25% of the tree’s canopy when shaping it. This will help ensure that the tree stays healthy and doesn’t experience any unwanted side effects from being pruned.

Pruning for health

In addition to maintaining the tree’s structure and shaping it into a certain form, you may also need to prune your shade trees for health reasons.

When pruning for health, always start by removing any dead or diseased branches. These should be the first to go to avoid the spread of disease. Next, focus on any damaged branches. These can be a hazard if they were to break off and fall, so it’s best to remove them as well. Finally, trim back any branches that are rubbing against each other. These can damage the tree and invite pests and disease.

When to prune

The best time to prune your shade trees is in the winter because your tree will be dormant. When your tree is dormant and does not have its full amount of leaves, it’s easier to see the branching structure and create a good shape.

Make sure you avoid pruning in the spring, summer, and fall except to remove any suckers, watersprouts, or broken, dead, or diseased branches. Pruning in seasons outside of winter can delay the tree’s healing process and make it more susceptible to disease.

You’ll want to start pruning the first winter after the tree is planted and continue each year.

Pruning Tips

Before you start pruning, here’s some tips to keep in mind:

  • Before you start, identify which tree species you have and consider the mature size and shape of your tree.
  • Don’t remove more than 25% of the live canopy in any one year.
  • Make sure you have the right tools and that they are kept sharp and clean. We recommend:
    • Bypass hand pruners
    • Pruning saw
    • Bypass loppers
    • Pole saw
    • Pole loppers
    • Hand saw

And most importantly – take necessary safety measures! We recommend avoiding ladders and hiring a professional for large trees that you can’t reach.

Pruning Tactics

When you begin pruning, keep these tips in mind to make sure that you are pruning properly:

  • Always cut back to a bud, another branch that is at least 1/3 the size of the pruned branch, or the trunk.
  • When cutting back to the trunk, cut just outside the branch bark collar (often looks like a turtleneck attaching the branch to the trunk). This allows the tree to close the wound.
  • When cutting back to another branch or bud, cut just outside of the other branch/bud (which will then take over and grow).
  • When cutting a larger branch, use a hand saw with a drop cut (also known as a 1-2-3 cut) to avoid tearing the bark and creating a large, uneven wound.

Pruning Strategies:

Though there are several pruning strategies that can be used, we recommend keeping the following tactics in mind to ensure the health of your trees:

  • What to remove: Any dead, broken, or crossing branches, watersprouts, and suckers. This leaves a clean slate of healthy branches.
  • Select a strong trunk: Choose the tallest, straightest, and healthiest stem to become the single trunk (sometimes called the central leader). Make sure the chosen trunk is established as the leader by removing or shortening any competing upright or long stems or branches that are greater than half the diameter of the chosen trunk.
  • Determine clearance: Branches should be elevated 8 feet above sidewalks and 14 feet above streets. Note: tree branches do NOT grow up as the tree grows taller; they stay in place. Look for a strong, healthy branch to establish as your lowest permanent branch (if you have a small tree, it may not be present yet).
  • Preserve temporary branches: All branches under your lowest permanent branch are temporary branches. Keep these on the tree while the tree is young to prevent sunburn by shading the bark and promote a thicker, stronger trunk. If lower temporary branches are too long, cut them to about 1 foot, then remove them completely in a couple of years.
  • Establish side branches: select side branches growing from the main trunk that are well spaced vertically and staggered evenly around the trunk. Do not allow multiple branches to grow from the same origin on the trunk. Small trees need branch spacing of 12 inches, and large trees need branch spacing of 18 inches.

Pruning Mature Trees

Mature trees should be pruned by certified arborists. For your personal safety, the safety of your property, and the health of your tree, do not try to perform tree work on mature trees or hire the work out to a gardener or landscaper.

Let the expert arborists at Tree Care Incorporated do that hard work for you. We can make sure that your trees are properly cared for for years to come. Contact us today!