Tree pruning: 3 basic techniques

Angie's List member Kathleen O. of Portland hired a tree service to prune branches that were rubbing against her roof.

Angie's List member Kathleen O. of Portland hired a tree service to prune branches that were rubbing against her roof.

All trees need to be pruned. Ideally, you want to start at a young age to encourage the growth of strong branches, prevent ingrowth and limit branches which extend too far over electrical and property lines. But this means more than just picking up a pair of shears and hacking away.

There are three basic techniques you can use to improve the look and health of any trees you own.

Branch and tool basics

Before you prune anything from your tree, make sure you understand the basics.

Start with the right tools. Small hand pruners are fine for thin branches or "suckers" which pop up from the ground near your tree, but you a need pair of shears for larger branches. Pole shears help you reach branches at the top of tall trees, but you may also want to consider hiring a pro who has access to a bucket or man-life, since trying to prune from the ground is inaccurate at best.

It's also worth knowing some tree terminology. All trees have a root and trunk system, but also have several other types of branches called "scaffold" and "lateral." Scaffold branches are large, thick branches which come directly off the trunk and support much of the tree's new growth. Lateral branches are smaller branches which come off of scaffold branches or the trunk itself. You don't want to cut back scaffold branches if at all possible because it can lead to infection or rot. If possible, prune trees at the end of winter to minimize the amount of time for wounds to heal.

Crown thinning

According to expert horticulturists at the University of Minnesota, there are three main types of pruning. Crown thinning refers to removing branches anywhere on a tree to improve light penetration and air movement. This is best done to younger trees, with an eye for weak branches, those which grow inward toward the trunk or show obvious signs of injury or infection. On mature trees, be careful not to over-prune or you risk hurting the tree.

Crown raising

Crown raising refers to removing lower branches to allow clearance above sideways, lawns or roadways. If at all possible, confine your pruning to lateral branches and new growth rather than scaffold branches. If that isn't possible, call in a professional tree service. Experts can offer advice on how to direct tree growth without causing permanent damage to the plant while still improving overall aesthetic and function.

Crown reduction

Finally, crown reduction refers to the removal of large branches at the top of a tree to reduce its height. This may be necessary if your tree is growing toward power lines or if large branches are starting to damage upper-floor windows. Ideally, branches should be pruned in such a way as to leave no stubs, and should be done only when there is no other option. Professional tree services are your best choice since they have both the tools and training required.

Beware of any company that advocates "topping" as an effective way to stop tree growth. This is the practice of removing scaffold branches or even part of a tree's trunk from the top of its canopy. Not only does topping damage a tree in the short term, it can lead to the proliferation of short, weak branches and the tree's eventual death. Topping is a purely aesthetic practice with serious consequences. Reputable pros can suggest better alternatives.

For more information, please visit the Angie's List Guide to Tree Care and Services.

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