Helpful Tips

How to Prune a Tree

how to prune a tree

Regularly pruning your trees is important for proper care and maintenance and it’s integral to the structure and aesthetic of the trees on your land. However, before you begin pruning you must have a general understanding of tree biology since not knowing how to prune trees properly can create significant damage that can shorten the lifespan of the trees.

Are You Ready to Start Pruning?

Learning how to prune a tree will depend on the types of trees you have on your property, whether they’re fruit trees or hardwood trees such as oak.

Beginners usually start pruning trees by using a variety of tools including electric chainsaws or pruning shears. However, if you prune trees, hacking the limbs off randomly, they will be left with a large pile of branches and a tree that may not make it to the next season. Pruning a tree indiscriminately can end up killing it. Having a dead tree on your property is dangerous, costly to replace and remove, and will ultimately lower the value of your property.

Pruning trees carefully and regularly is a crucial step toward maintaining the health of your trees. The trick here is knowing where and when to prune. Each time you cut into a tree there should be a reason for that particular cut. In this guide, I’ll go over why you need to prune trees, the right way to do it, and what to avoid when cutting tree branches.

Tools for the Job

Tree pruning and sawing

Before you get started cutting tree branches, you’ll need some pruning tools, including:

  • Pruning shears
  • Electric chainsaw
  • Hedge shears
  • Rake
  • Gloves
  • Lopping shears

Why Trees Need to Be Pruned

When you prune trees correctly it strengthens a tree. Tree pruning is one of the best things you can do to maintain a tree’s health and promote new growth.

When you prune trees the right way it provides many benefits such as:

  • It controls the form of the tree
  • It removes large branches that can interfere with nearby structures, overhead wires, and can endanger your property
  • It rejuvenates trees
  • Removes dead or broken branches and weak branches
  • It maintains tree health
  • Improves the appearance of trees
  • Ensures healthy growth
  • Gets rid of diseased branches

Many property owners make the mistake of neglecting their trees for several years and decide to prune trees too severely once the trees have grown uncontrollably. You need to understand how a tree responds to pruning cuts to prune it effectively.

Prune Trees with Bud Growth in Mind

man pruning a tree

The most important part of a tree is its buds. The direction a tree grows in is determined by the buds. There are a few different types:

  • Latent
  • Terminal
  • Lateral

When you’re pruning, choose the bud that will grow in the direction you want. While an unpruned branch tends to grow vertically, when cutting the end bud, you can stimulate the radical growth of the bud laterally.

When you prune everything except for a subside branch, this will stimulate only the outside lateral bud. When pruning, select buds that point to the outside of the tree. These buds are usually considered the most desirable since they won’t interfere with the tree’s interior.


The end bud also referred to as the terminal bud, will continue to grow upward or outward on the branch. If the end bud is removed, then the closest lateral buds will inherit its growth and strength. Removing the terminal bud will cause the growth of side branches.


The lateral buds are the buds that grow on the sides of branches. These types of buds will develop into leaves that will eventually grow into branches. If you remove the lateral buds, the growth will be transformed into a terminal bud.


A bud that’s been dormant for several years is referred to as a latent bud which is essentially the tree’s insurance policy against any damage. These buds will begin to grow after a tree has sustained damage to its other branches and grows to reestablish the delicate balance of roots and crown size.

Newly Planted Trees

To ensure healthy growth, begin pruning young trees when they’re first planted. When tree pruning, you should cut back a quarter of the new tree height to compensate for the transplant.

To do, you will:

  • Trim away diseased branches and broken roots back to the healthy wood.
  • A root that wraps around the base of a tree is a girdling root. Eventually, this type of root can kill a tree. However, if the tree was sold in a large tub or pot, then you’ll not have to make any compensating cuts to the roots.
  • You will eliminate branches that are damaged or broken tree limbs. These tree limbs can be diseased so removal will prevent the infection from spreading to the healthy branches.

How to Compensate for Transplanting a Young Tree

pruning a young tree

Proper pruning will compensate for the transplant and can ensure plant health. Before a tree is transplanted, there’s a healthy and natural balance in size between the crown and the roots. Both the crown and the roots rely on each other for producing food for the tree. During transplanting, many of the roots can become severed. To help restore the tree’s health a portion of the crown should be pruned.

Most landscapers recommend pruning the tree back 1/4 at the crown. The first step is identifying the branch that you want to preserve, then pruning back any lateral branches 1/4 of an inch. If you have a young forked tree, you can help restore it by removing one of the halves and placing a support crutch for their remaining branch.

Healthy Growth

During the first year of growth, the goal should be to ensure the tree survives the transplanting. Your focus will not be on preserving small branches and leaves. Tree pruning will establish strong leader branches that you want to keep. However, during this time you want to be cautious and avoid making wounds that the tree will not be able to heal.

How to Prune a Tree

man happily pruning a tree

When you’re pruning existing trees on your property the best way to carry out the job and prevent damage to the branches is to stay close to them without damaging the bark. You want to prune at an angle to minimize the size of the wounds made. You must leave a clean cut that is slightly angled. This type of cut will produce the smallest wounds. Avoid long stumps, which can result in insect infestation.

When the cuts are smooth, wound closures are faster. Make sure that you keep your tools well sharpened to get a cleaner cut without any rough edges. If you’re dealing with a large tree and want to use an electric chainsaw, I recommend the Quick Trimmer Makita XCU02PTX1 lithium-ion cordless chainsaw, for the cleanest cuts.

When pruning, you will make cuts that are next to the branch’s bark ridge. This is located on the branch’s upper side. To prevent too much surface exposure you will cut at an angle. Leaving a smaller exposed surface allows the cuts to heal quicker and healthier.

Pruning Trees with Thicker Branches

When you’re making a larger cut just like when you’re thinning branches, it will require a couple of cuts made before the last cut. This will prevent the branch from tearing or ripping the bark on the underside as it falls. You need to use a rope to help support any larger branches before you make the first cut. Once you’re ready, make the initial cut on the underside of the branch approximately a foot from the trunk. You’ll want to cut around 1/3 of the way through the branch and stop cutting before the saw binds up. The next cut should be made on the top of the branch approximately an inch away from the first cut. You will continue cutting until the branch is free, then you will remove the remaining stump.

What Branches Should I Prune?

pruning a branch

Now that you know how to prune your trees the right way and why you have to prune in the first place, now it’s time to check out your trees for any of the following:

Dying or Dead Branches

You will cut these branches back to the main trunk or back to another healthy branch.


You’ll also remove branches that are too long, cutting them back to the trunk or the nearest healthy branch.

Oddly Shaped Trees

If you want to correct the shape of the tree, it’s possible to do a bit of surgery to prevent it from developing too widely or preventing the development of forked or weak branches.  A beautiful and healthy tree should have a strong central leader branch with the scaffold limbs spaced along the trunk.

Close Branches

If there are too many branches growing closely together this can potentially stunt the growth of the tree and ruin its appearance. Thinning is done to correct the situation. It also opens up the tree to allow rain, light, and air, which is necessary for healthy leaves. Thinning can also reduce the area where snow can pile on and break limbs.

Branches Rubbing Together

You need to remove any branches that are rubbing together. These branches may end up creating wounds where an insect infestation can occur and disease will begin. Large portions of a tree can be lost if left untreated.

Remove Water Sprouts and Suckers

Water sprouts tend to grow vertically on the trunk, while suckers develop at the trunk’s base. Both are unattractive and can weaken a tree.


You will want to remove branches that have nary or weak row angle crotches. A weak crotch branch can damage nearby branches and bark.

Broken Branches and Other Dangerous Branches

pruning a dead branch

You must prune away any dangerous branches to protect your property and your family. Remove branches that interfere with overhead power lines or branches that hang over any area frequented by people, such as your house or any play structures.

Pruning Conifers

Trimming conifers such as spruces, junipers, and pines, makes many people nervous. That’s because these trees are very difficult to prune. With a conifer, you must shear and prune. While pruning is a great technique to control the shape and form of a tree, when you shear, it controls the new growth.

Keeping Your Overgrown Shrubs Healthy

When pruning a conifer, make sure that you stick to broken or dead branches only. You can also prune conifers that are interfering with power lines or buildings. You will want to shear a conifer once the new needles are approximately 3/4 of an inch long.

The new growth should be cut in the early summer or late spring. Typically, any new growth is a lighter green, while older growth is a much darker shade. Cutting off approximately a third of the new growth annually keeps conifers growing slowly and well-formed. You must shear when the new growth is still soft. If you try shearing after the growth has hardened, the new buds will not form correctly and the tips may become dead twigs.

Pruning Fruit Trees in Winter

Deciduous plants, such as fruit trees, are flowering trees. Pruning tree branches on spring-flowering shrubs and trees must be done carefully.

These flowering trees are considered working trees, so you must prune them differently than the other trees on your property, such as oak trees.

pruning in the winter

Fruit-bearing trees will not always have a strong central leader branch like other trees and some may need heavy pruning if there’s dense growth. This is typical of the common apple tree.

The primary result of pruning apple trees should be strong scaffolding branches. The structure of these flowering trees should be kept fairly open which will allow air and light to reach all portions of the tree. This will prevent diseases and can preserve the tree’s ability to grow fruit on the lower limbs. On fruit trees, the crowns are kept low to promote easier harvesting and pruning.

Every type of fruit tree will have its unique pruning requirements.

The best time to prune a living branch on deciduous trees is late in the dormant season, typically during late winter. You can also prune these trees very early in the spring before the spring growth flush begins.

While most trees can be pruned at any time, some types of trees tend to be more susceptible to infection and disease if they are pruned during hot weather.

Final Thoughts

How you prune a tree and when will depend on the type of trees in your yard. For working trees, such as fruit trees you will need to prune them at a specific time of the year to promote new growth and prevent disease. Conifers must be pruned delicately to promote healthy new growth and the proper form. Other trees on your property such as pine and oak are not quite as labor-intensive and delicate, however, you should take a proper and gentle approach toward pruning them to encourage healthy new growth and to keep a beautiful shape that allows plenty of air, light, and rain in.

This guide can help you determine how, when, and where to prune your trees to keep your property looking beautiful and your trees growing healthy and strong.