How To and How NOT To Prune a Tree

While I enjoy remarking and rhapsodizing on the world around me, there are on occasion, certain practicalities that must be attended to.

I am an arborist by trade. It’s one of my many trades. While I may be a “Jill of all trades, master of none,” I was an excellent apprentice to a wonderful arborist for seven years, so I feel qualified to share a bit of practical information on tree care.

Last spring I attended a library convention in Denver. I stayed at a nice hotel, but was dismayed and discouraged every time I saw this poor little tree that was engaged in a valiant struggle to beautify the courtyard area beneath our front door.

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Someone has not dealt kindly with this tree. The branch stubs are ugly, unnecessary, and in poor style and taste. They are unhealthy for the tree. The only appropriate word that comes to mind is “amputation.” Ouch!

Below, I’ve marked in red, the pruning cuts that I would make to this tree. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to connect with hotel management to share some suggestions.)

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When pruning a branch, it’s best to cut it back to where it connects with the larger branch (or trunk) and remove it in a smooth manner. The thin layer just under the bark is the cambium layer, which is where the tree’s living, growing tissue is. That cambium layer is able to heal a cut if it’s done properly and closely to where it flows.

Look at the round areas that the two green arrows are pointing to. Those are the healing wounds of properly pruned branches—cut close to the trunk. Note how the tree is growing over those wounds. Each will eventually close up. This is how the cambium layer is heals the tree. It travels in the shortest possible path. It can NOT travel around protruding stubs. Eventually the stub will die and dry and become a pathway for bugs and pathogens to infect the tree.

In addition to being healthier, this properly pruned tree would have much smoother, graceful lines. I would also cut off any dead branches in the upper right hand area (in front of the door.) The double stub in the center of the tree actually has small branches growing out of it. I would leave those for now, hoping that they will grow and fill in the middle section of tree. If they don’t grow, I’d cut the stubs off, smoothly to the branch in a year or two. It can take several years to prune and shape a tree that has been neglected or badly damaged. You don’t want to take too much off the “crown” or branching area of the tree—it’s generally safe to remove up to 1/3 of the crown branches each year.

People ask when is the best time to prune a tree. Roy, my tree-whispering mentor, said, “any time the saw is sharp,” meaning any time is good. That said, there are some times that are better or worse for pruning. It depends on the tree. Fruit trees need it in spring, and can also be pruned after the fruit is gathered. Shade trees can be pruned at nearly any time. Winter is good because you can see the basic “skeleton” or structure of the tree. However it’s difficult to tell a dead branch from a dormant one. You also don’t have to deal with the weight of the leaves in winter or early spring. Pruning a maple in very early spring will show sap loss through the cuts.

You can learn a lot about proper pruning from books at the library or online. University Extension Services are reliable resources. Or you can call a friendly arborist. Whatever you do, don’t allow anyone to leave ugly stubs on your tree. It’s sloppy and lazy work and painful for the poor tree that has to wear such scars through no fault of its own.

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