Whether or not pruning is done well can make or break a tree. With good pruning practices, a tree can grow and flourish for many years with great shape and good health. Pruning is used not only to control the size of a tree but also to improve the plant’s health and appearance. In these ways, pruning a tree is not so different from cutting hair. Unlike a haircut, however, if pruning is done incorrectly it can harm or even kill a plant.
When preparing to prune, gather the correct tools. Like cutting hair, using the correct tools makes it easier and does less damage. For branches smaller than ¾” in diameter, use hand pruners that have sharpened, curved blades that cut like scissors for easier pruning. For branches up to 1¾”, use lopping shears, ideally a pair that has a shock-absorbing bumper for protection from the shock of a branch snapping in the loppers. Branches up to 2½” can be cut with a pruning saw; up to 3″ or 4″ if the saw has coarser teeth. Any bigger branches should be cut off with a chainsaw.
Though each plant’s needs are different, most trees prefer the heavy pruning to be done in late winter or early spring, before the new growth starts to bud. It might be a little chilly outside, but this way, the branches are trimmed before the tree wastes precious energy and sugars producing new branches that will end up being removed. If there are broken or dead branches, prune them off immediately to prevent spread of disease.
Before the cutting begins, research the type of pruning that is best for the specific plant. Then envision what the tree will look like after it has been pruned. If that major branch is taken off, will the whole tree be leaning to the left? Though the tree will continue to grow new branches, it is better to “measure twice and cut once.”
A pruning job is only as good as each individual cut. For best results, always make a cut smooth and clean, without tearing the bark, to keep the plant healthy. Try to angle the cut about 45 to 60 degrees so that water will roll off. It is generally best to cut about ½” above a node or bud because too much branch between node and cut will leave a dead stub, which is neither attractive nor healthy.
The last node on the branch is where the new growth will stem from, so choose to leave a bud that points away from the tree. When removing branches, cut the ones that point into the tree. Crossing branches will rub together and remove bark, causing infection and calluses. Ideally, all the branches on the tree will grow up and out.
Pruning can also be used to train a young tree into different shapes, as in bonsai or espalier. It is also great for encouraging fruiting and flowering, even in older trees that need some rejuvenation. Pruning is good for trees the way haircuts are good for people. Trim off split ends here, a little shorter there, and suddenly it’s a whole new tree. Keep pruning the tree yearly, and it will maintain health and a great look for many years to come.