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How and When to Prune Trees

Trees are a major part of the landscape, and they can have a big impact on your backyard. One way to improve the look of your yard is by pruning trees. 

Pruning can be done anytime during the year, but it’s best to wait until after spring or summer, when most plants in your garden have finished blooming and are dormant for winter. The best time to start pruning is right now!

Pruning is a science and an art. Proper pruning requires an understanding of plant biology, an appreciation for aesthetic beauty, and a sense of how pruning will allow more growth.  In today’s blog, we’re taking a look at the when, why, and how of pruning trees.

The first thing to understand about pruning is to understand why it’s done in the first place. Pruning accomplishes many goals:

  • Improved plant structure and growth habits.
  • Limits disease by reducing shade and stagnant airflow.
  • Encouraging a beautiful shape that complementscompliments other landscaping.
  • Removing dead, diseased, or pest-damaged branches will aid in general good health.
  • Averts trees from growing into unwanted areas or structures such as utility lines.
  • Removes obstructions from views.
  • Prevents unnecessary breakage of branches from over weighting.

There are a few things to ascertain before you ever begin cutting:

First assess the tree.  Ask the following questions: Is the tree in good health?  What type of structure does this tree have?  Then look for damaged or competing branches and make their removal your first cuts.

Next determine how much pruning is necessary.  If the health of the tree is poor, choose a low dose of pruning. If the health is good, choose a normal dose prune.

There are three general types of cuts when pruning:

  • Removal cuts, removes the entire branch at its point of origin of which weak or diseased branches are targeted. Removal should also occur when one branch grows in the path of another branch—these are sometimes called “competing” or “crossing” branches.  Removing bad branches will stimulate healthy growth patterns while also improving overall appearance.
  • Reduction cuts, shorten the stem or branch to a lateral that is at least 1/3RD the diameter of the parent.  The goals are to suppress branch growth (not to remove the branch),  direct new growth and reduce the total amount of pruning necessary.
  • Heading cuts, which cut back part of the shoot or branch. Proper heading cuts should be made a quarter inch above a lateral bud. Vertical growth—when tree or bush branches grow straight up—is unhealthy because the branches become too top heavy, and will tend to break off in high winds. On fruit trees, vertical branches will likely break off under the weight of the fruit. To make a heading cut, cut a quarter inch beyond the lateral bud. This will encourminimise healthy sideways growth in the long term.

Branches that are broken or damaged should also be removed. Dead sections may be removed at any time of year. However, pruning for shape and productivity must be timed very carefully.

Many questions are surrounding when to prune trees. So if you’re looking for a good time, the time is NOW! Fall is a great time to prune many trees, shrubs and perennial plants. However, first things first, you have to ask yourself some quick questions before you start.

Do You Have the Right Tools?

Before you start thinking about when to prune trees, making sure you have the right tools for whatever job you’re doing is essential! If you plan just to prune back a few smaller branches or cut back a few perennial plants, a good pair of by-pass pruning shears will do the trick. 

If you plan to prune branches that are between ½ to 3 inches in diameter, then a pair of loppers is needed. Anything larger than 3 inches should be pruned with a good, sharp pruning saw.

What Are You Trying to Accomplish?

Knowing exactly what you’re trying to accomplish is important in pruning plants. For example, are you trying to control the size or shape? Are you pruning to remove limbs that are growing too low or pose a safety concern? 

Here’s a useful pruning tip: For the most part, smaller shrubs, especially ones that flower in the spring or summer, should not be pruned using hedge shears. This is because the flowers for these shrubs are set during the summer. Therefore, shearing them in the fall will reduce the number of flowers for next spring.

Do You Have a Plan for the Waste?

It’s important to think about what you will do with the material you remove. For example, depending on where you live, there may be an extra charge from your waste removal company to haul away branches and other brushes. 

There may also be time limits on when you can have them removed, so considering that time frame is essential. For example, in the city where I live, yard waste pickup stops in late November. 

I also need to tie up all branches so that they are no longer than 6 feet in length, and the bundle cannot exceed 4 feet in diameter. Again, knowing this in advance and planning accordingly could save you a lot of headaches.

How to Prune Trees


Trees: Most of the pruning you do will help the tree grow better and have a better form. Our first tip on how to prune trees are to look for branches that are crossing each other or are growing into the middle of the tree. 

When making the cut, don’t cut in the middle of the branch. Instead, prune just above a growth point, like near a bud, stem or branch. The cut should be made at a 30 to 45-degree angle. 

Take care not to leave stubs. Therefore, there end of the branch will not produce new growth, and eventually, it will die, leaving it open for an invasion of wood-decaying organisms.

Shrubs: If you want to shape a spring or summer flowering shrub or small tree instead of just cutting it back, it’s important to not try and shape it with pruning shears. Taking off across a branch or one that may be damaged is okay. There may be a few fewer flowers, but it will be better for the plant in the long run.

What if My Tree Needs Major Pruning?

If your trees need major pruning or you are not sure what needs to be pruned, contact a licensed arborist to do the work for you. Pruning can be a dangerous task, and major work should be left up to the professionals.

When to Prune Apple Trees?

November, December or January are the best months to trim and prune your apple trees. However, pruning after these months might stunt the growth and reduce your overall crop in September and October. Pruning is key because it removes dead branches while reducing disease, which can kill an apple tree within a year.

  • Prune your apple tree in November, December or January
  • Remove any dead branches because they cause less foliage
  • Pruning dead branches will reduce/remove disease
  • Never prune in the spring months because it will drastically reduce crops

Why Prune Apple Trees?

Pruning your apple trees stimulates growth and causes your apple tree to produce more branches, making more apples. Another reason to prune is to remove dead branches that will stunt the tree’s growth and can cause disease. Diseases start in deadwood and will spread through the apple tree and cause your crop to fail.

  • Better yields of apples
  • The quality of apples will improve
  • Reduces the chances of disease
  • Stimulates overall growth
  • It helps light reach the centre of your tree

How To Prune Apple Trees?

Pruning your apple tree is very simple when you know what you’re looking for! In this section, we will help you understand what to look out for when pruning. So, grab your pruning shears or a small handheld saw and get to work pruning:

  • Remove diseased branches. These branches will be darker in colour and might have some signs of splits or white mould.A common disease among fruit trees is called apple canker which will kill the tree and crop if not thoroughly removed after summer!
  • Crossing branches. After the summer growth, you might find you have twisted or crossed branches. This will reduce cop volume, and the smaller branch should be removed.
  • Deadwood. Removing dead branches is a must because this is where the disease will start. To determine if a branch is a simple dead, bend it slightly, and it will snap if bad, a good branch will bend without snapping.
  • Downward Growing. If a branch is growing toward the floor or horizon, then you should remove it back to the trunk, leaving about 2 inches of growth.This stump will produce more upward growing branches when it starts to bud again in early spring.
  • Lose the suckers. When an apple tree starts to grow again in early spring, the rising sap will produce suckers at ground level, you must remove these as they grow. Do not wait until winter to remove these because suckers use the plant’s sap to grow.

Pruning Tips for Ornamental Trees

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Ornamentals may be pruned throughout the season during dormancy, after spring growth, and through the summer and early fall. It’s best to avoid pruning during leaf drop.  During dormancy, most plants are in an “energy saver” mode, and pruning does not hinder future growth. 

Indeed, the tree will send more energy to the remaining buds, increasing growth as temperatures rise.  In contrast, pruning in the summer or spring will cut into the tree’s growth period, and will sometimes reduce that growth.  With that said, you may want to cut overgrown trees in the summer, so as to limit their growth.

Pruning a flowering specimen in bloom is a definite no-no, in any season.  Never prune during leaf drop.

When pruning Japanese maples and other ornamental specimens, be sure to remove dead wood first, working your way from the trunk of the tree out to the tips of its branches.  Some customers prefer to have their ornamental trees pruned when they’re fully leafed, in the spring or summer.  

While this does allow one to see what you’re cutting away, we generally recommend pruning before a plant buds out in leaves or blossoms; this allows our landscape arborists to prune more strategically for more aesthetically pleasing growth patterns in the future.

Portland landscaping maintenance crews that “top” or “shear” trees and call it pruning are doing their customers a major disservice.  It’s faster, but in the long term, such hasty, practices will injure the plant, require increased healing, increases the susceptibility to disease and just looks bad.

When To Trim Oak Trees In Your Yard

The best time to prune oak trees is during winter dormancy. In most areas where oaks grow, trees tend to be entering dormancy by late November and are usually still in dormancy in early March. Whenever you do decide to prune, remember not to remove any branch without reason!

The sap in the tree is not flowing during dormancy. Growth is pretty much on hold. Therefore, fewer active processes could be harmed by a wound or load shift caused by pruning. Try to trim oaks in the winter when fluids are not actively moving through the trunk and branches. Get them while they’re sleeping….

While oak trees don’t always loose all their leaves in the fall, they will have substantially fewer leaves in the winter than in the summer. Fewer leaves means that the branches are easier to see and follow with the eye as you plan your pruning.

When the tree “wakes up” in the spring, it will have the energy to put towards healing the pruning wound. This timing will help the oak tree recover quickly and will minimise risk.

When Not To Trim Oak Trees

The worst time to trim oak trees is during peak spring growth. From mid-March until the end of June, oak trees are very busy growing! This is not the time to stress them with pruning. Sap flow is at an annual high and will quickly spread any infection that may enter through a fresh pruning wound.

So, April-June is the worst time to trim oak trees, as the trees are in full growth mode. Pruning wounds are an easy access point for harmful bacteria and other nasty pathogens. Oak wilt is of particular concern. 

deadwoodenables, our landscape toee has also just used stored energy to grow shoots and leaves. It needs time to recover! August-October is considered less risky for pruning, but most homeowners wait until dormancy to trim oak trees.

Try not to prune oak trees during the spring-summer season. Your tree will likely be healthier if you wait for winter pruning unless it’s an uncommon situation.

Resist spring and summer pruning unless it is truly necessary. Try to remember that pruning wounds heal best if the cuts take place before the spring growth flush. Also, minimizeminimise warm weather oak pruning!

Tips For Pruning Oak Trees In The Winter

Oak trees are best pruned during winter dormancy. There are, however, a few considerations for pruning oak trees in wintertime.

Some homeowners choose to trim oak trees in late November or early December, just as they enter dormancy. Most of the leaves have fallen and the frame of the tree is visible.

Pruning in early winter allows the homeowner to remove any extra-long branches or other branches that might not be able to hold snow or wind loads. It can also be easier to work in the area around the tree before there is a lot of snow on the ground.

Early spring is also a great time to prune, provided it’s before the oak trees are out of dormancy. It can be difficult to see which branches are dead during this time of year, but it’s easy to see the general form of the tree.

The tree doesn’t have as much leaf cover during winter dormancy, making the frame easier to see. Now that it’s tree trimming season, remember not to go TOO far with the whole oak tree pruning thing. This is not the time (nor is it ever the time) to start randomly cutting off branches. Make a plan before you start pruning!

Oak trees are generally pruned to have a dominant central leader branch. That means that there is one branch in the middle that is taller than the others (like a Christmas tree). Remember that having multiple leader branches creates a weaker tree.

Try to train a tree to have only one leader to help strengthen it for extreme weather. “Topping” landscape trees is generally discouraged as it can weaken the whole tree. It’s also prudent to research the type of oak tree you have to learn more about it’s common habit (shape).

Types Of Oak Tree Pruning That Can Be Done Any Time Of Year

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My Grandpa always said that the best time to prune is when you’ve got the pruners in your hand. He was joking around, but there is a grain of truth to this. There are some types of tree pruning that can be done any time of year.

Both new and mature oak trees can be pruned any time of year for the purposes of removing dead, damaged, or diseased branches. Get them out of there as soon as is safely possible! But don’t go trimming off healthy branches just because you’ve got the pruners in your hand.

t’s also prudent to remove any healthy branches that may cause a safety concern. If a branch is impeding a walkway or otherwise creating a risk, removal is often necessary. Trees are trimmed to prevent or address safety risks at any time of year.

A healthy oak tree should be able to withstand a bit of pruning even in the “wrong” season. This can be a good opportunity to make sure the tree is in a healthy environment, including that it has access to adequate water, sunlight, and air movement.

Other Considerations For Seasonal Timing The Pruning Of Oak Trees

Oak tree pruning should be done at least once a year to help the tree shape. The central leader trunk should always be the tallest, largest branch. Branches that cross other branches are good candidates for removal, as are inward growing branches and branches that can no longer get any sun.

Prune off only a little bit each season rather than doing a large renovation pruning every few years. Don’t get too ambitious in a single calendar year. 

The oak tree needs leaves to make it’s food! Therefore, it’s not a good idea to prune off more than 1/3 of the leaves in a one-year period. The tree needs adequate leaf canopy to grow strong roots, withstand winter cold, and grow next year’s leaf canopy.

It’s also important to schedule your oak tree trimming for when you have time to do it properly. Proper trimming includes disinfecting pruning tools before you start….all the way to taking the tree trimmings to the compost. Make sure you have adequate time available.

Trees can be left to heal their own cuts in the open air. Healthy trees seal proper pruning cuts on their own. Step away from the can of sealant and let the tree do its thing!

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