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Trimming and Pruning Trees and Shrubs

Trimming and pruning trees and shrubs is a great way to keep your yard looking neat. It will also help prevent pests, such as aphids or Japanese beetles, from attacking the plants. This blog post will provide you with information on how to trim and prune your trees and shrubs in order to maintain a healthy garden or yard. In addition, we have included an infographic that provides helpful tips for trimming your trees and shrubs. 

When trimming or pruning trees and shrubs, one should always be aware of the tree’s natural shape. This will allow you to give it a more pleasing look. When trimming branches, never remove more than 50% of the branch in order to avoid damaging the plant. It is also important not to cut into old wood that has developed bark because this could lead to decay and disease. 

To avoid these problems altogether, use shears instead of saws for cutting branches from plants with brittle wood such as fruit trees or roses, which can easily be ruined by cuts made by anything other than a sharp blade. 

Tree Trimming vs. Tree Pruning — What’s the Difference?

If you’re a homeowner who cares for their yard, chances are you’ve considered tree trimming and tree pruning before. Both are excellent services within the landscape industry. The differences are subtle, though. Pruning is used to remove unnecessary branches. Trimming, on the other hand, promotes healthy growth. 

Both services are performed at separate times of the year, using vastly different pieces of equipment to provide a better aesthetic and healthier landscape. Understanding the difference, though, is crucial.

Tree trimming helps trees, shrubs, and hedges growth in a healthy manner. Often, commercial clients trim trees to make their property more attractive to prospective clients. A better appearance typically means more visitors.

Professionals generally focus on removing green shoots, which helps encourage healthier growth overall. But, on top of growth, trimming also improves the appearance of the tree itself.

Pruning is not just limited to tree maintenance. The term is often associated with the removal of unnecessary branches and sometimes even roots. These branches and roots may be dead and need to be cut away from the tree.

In some cases, branches grow in the wrong direction. For example, they push towards electrical utility wires or structures. Pruning helps keep unwanted growth in check.

When it comes to pruning, shears are often the choice tool – hand shears or lopping shears. These shears are typically strong enough to cut through thin branches. For thick branches, a saw may be required.

For trimming, shears, trimmers, and saws provide efficient results and healthier overall growth.

What is the best time of year to trim your trees?

Our arborists often get asked this question: When should we have our trees trimmed? Unfortunately, the answer is not always as straightforward as we’d like, so we’ve compiled a helpful guide to try and answer this question once and for all. 

When thinking about pruning, our arborists need to be mindful of the type of tree we’re talking about and a number of other factors like the impact of insects, the trees’ susceptibility to disease, and the surrounding landscaping. 

Generally, the best time to prune or trim trees and shrubs is during the winter months. However, from November through March, most trees are dormant, which makes it the ideal time for the following reasons:

  • Trees are less susceptible to insects or disease.
  • There is less impact on the surrounding landscape, and our crew can easily see what they’re doing while all the leaves are gone. 
  • Trees heal faster, meaning that by the time spring rolls around, your tree will be happy and healthy again.

Oh, and one more big reason that winter is better for pruning trees: You save more money! It is a simple fact that when you book your tree pruning and removal early (like today), you’ll save more money. So don’t wait until the last minute and be disappointed.

Reasons for Pruning

Pruning is a regular part of all tree and plant maintenance programs at Birch Tree Care. Proper pruning of plants encourages growth, improves the overall plant health, increases the curb appeal of your property, and increases flower and fruit production. 

Prune to increase the overall health of plant

  • Remove dead or dying branches injured by disease, insect infestation, animals, storms, or other damage.
  • Remove branches that rub together
  • Remove branch stubs

Maintain intended purposes for plants in a landscape

  • Encourage flower and fruit development
  • Maintain a dense hedge
  • Encourage a desired plant form or special garden forms

Improve the appearance of plants and overall curb appeal

  • Control plant size and shape
  • Keep shrubs well-proportioned and dense
  • Remove unwanted branches, waterspouts, suckers and undesirable fruiting structures that detract from plant appearance

Protect your family & property

  • Remove dead branches
  • Have hazardous trees taken down
  • Prune branches that overhang homes, parking areas, sidewalks, and any place that falling limbs could injure people or damage property
  • Eliminate branches that interfere with street lights, traffic signals or overhead wires and any branches that obscure vision at intersections

Pruning in late winter ensures that fresh wounds are only exposed for a short amount of time before new growth begins, which helps the wound from pruning begin to heal faster. In addition, pruning dormant plants can make decisions easier as there are fewer obstructions from leaves. 

To avoid certain diseases, pruning in the late winter is especially great. Avoid Oak Wilt disease by pruning oaks between November and March. You should never prune your oaks between April and October. Prune apple trees between February and late April.

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Spring or summer pruning increases the chances of infection spread, while fall or early winter pruning can result in growth issues the following season. Therefore, honey Locusts should be pruned when they are dormant in late winter as it is best to prune in dry conditions. 

Trees and shrubs that bloom early in the growing season on last year’s growth should be pruned immediately after they finish blooming. Shrubs that are grown primarily for their foliage rather than showy flowers should be pruned in the spring before growth begins. 

After the initial pruning that takes place at planting, hedges need to be pruned often. Typically hedges can be pruned twice a year, in spring and then again in mid-summer. With few exceptions, evergreens (conifers) require little pruning. However, different types of evergreens should be pruned according to their varied growth habits.

Why Prune?

A well-maintained tree or shrub is healthier and looks better — two very good reasons to learn how to prune correctly. Proper tree-pruning and shrub-pruning helps:

Maintain Safety: Remove low-growing branches if they impede passing vehicles or obscure oncoming traffic from view. You may also need to take out split or broken branches before they have the chance to come crashing down on a person, car or building. It’s also wise to prune out low-hanging, whip-like branches (especially those with thorns) that may strike passersby.

Alter or Rejuvenate Growth: Neglected, overgrown shrubs can sometimes be turned into small multitrunked trees if you remove their lower limbs, which may be a better approach than digging out the shrub and planting another in its place.

Direct Growth: Pruning influences the direction in which a plant grows: Each time you make a cut, you stop growth in one direction and encourage it in another. This principle is important to keep in mind when you train young trees to develop a strong branching structure.

Remove Undesirable Growth: Prune out unwanted growth periodically. For example, cut out wayward branches, take out thin growth, remove suckers (stems growing up from the roots) and water sprouts (upright shoots growing from the trunk and branches).

Promote Plant Health: Trees and shrubs stay healthier if you remove branches that are diseased, dead, pest-ridden or rubbing together.

Create Particular Shapes: You can prune a line of closely planted trees or shrubs as a unit to create a hedge. If you’re a hobbyist who practices topiary, you can prune trees and shrubs into fanciful shapes.

Produce More Flowers or Fruits: Flowering plants and some fruit trees are pruned to increase blossoms and fruit yield and improve their quality. You’ll need, for example, to remove spent flowers from roses throughout their bloom time. For some fruit trees, you’ll make many small, precise cuts each dormant season. Although this sort of pruning sometimes ranks as a tedious chore, remember that your efforts will pay off in lavish bloom and generous crops of fruit at harvest time.

When to Prune

Pruning at the wrong time won’t damage plants, but it can sacrifice that year’s flowers or fruit. As a rule of thumb, prune spring-flowering shrubs and trees immediately after the flowers fade. 

Prune summer-blooming trees and shrubs in winter or early spring before new growth emerges. In regions that have harsh winters, late-summer pruning encourages new growth that might not harden before the cold settles in.

These guidelines are most pertinent to climates with four distinct seasons and a definite winter chill. In warmer winter areas, timing will vary depending on the particular plant’s native climate. If you have any doubts about the best time to prune a particular plant, ask your Lowe’s nursery specialist or your cooperative extension office for advice.

Pruning in Spring

Many plants, especially deciduous trees and shrubs, are best pruned in late winter or early spring, just before they break dormancy. Once heavy frosts have abated, the plants are less likely to suffer cold damage at the point where you make your cuts. In addition, deciduous plants are still bare, so you can easily spot broken and awkwardly growing branches and decide how to direct growth. And because growth will soon start, your pruning cuts will stimulate new growth in the direction you want.

You’ll need to know whether the flowers are produced on old or new growth for flowering trees and shrubs. If early spring flowers come on last year’s wood — as in the case of forsythia, flowering quince and flowering trees such as peach and plum — you’ll lose many flowers by pruning before plants break dormancy. 

It’s best to leave tree trimming until flowering has finished. Then, plants such as cinquefoil, which bear flowers on leafy new growth formed in spring, can safely be pruned while dormant.

When removing heavy branches, avoid ripping the bark by shortening the branch to a stub before cutting it off at the branch collar. Use a sharp pruning saw and make these three cuts as described below:

Step 1: Cut From Below

About a foot from the branch collar, make a cut from the underside approximately a third of the way through.

Step 2: Cut the Branch Top

About an inch further out on the branch, cut through the top until the branch rips off. The branch should split cleanly between the two cuts.

Step 3: Cut to the Branch Collar

Make the final cut by placing the saw beside the branch bark ridge and cutting downward just outside the branch collar. (If the branch angle is very narrow, cut upward from the bottom to avoid cutting into the branch collar.)

Pruning in Summer

A second time to prune is in late summer. Some gardeners like to thin plants in summer because it’s easier to see how much thinning is really needed when branches still have thick foliage. 

And because growth is slower at this time of year, pruning is less likely to stimulate new growth — an advantage when you’re thinning. In cold-winter regions, don’t do summer pruning later than one month before the first frost. If you do, an early frost may damage the plant at the point of the cuts.

Pruning Evergreens

Although evergreen trees and shrubs don’t drop their leaves, they approach a near-dormant state during the winter months. This group includes broadleaf evergreens (such as boxwood and camellia) and conifers (such as spruce and pine). 

Broadleaf evergreens are usually best pruned in late dormancy or in summer, as outlined above. However, for flowering broadleaf evergreens, timing is a bit more precise; you’ll need to prune to preserve flower buds. 

Prune after bloom for evergreens flowering on last season’s growth; prune before spring growth begins for those that bloom on new growth.

Most conifers are pruned only in their first two or three years in order to direct their basic shape; it’s best to leave them alone from then on. 

Some of the most badly botched pruning you’ll see is on conifers that have been pruned too severely — usually to keep them confined to a location that’s too small — although a few conifers, including arborvitae, yew and hemlock, lend themselves to shearing into hedges.

Understanding Growth Buds


Pruning makes sense when you understand the role and locations of growth buds. Select the bud you want to keep and cut just beyond it. The resulting growth will vary depending on the bud. You’ll need to learn to recognise three different kinds of growth buds to get the effect you want.

Terminal buds grow at the tip of a shoot and cause the shoot to grow longer. These buds produce hormones that move downward along the shoot, inhibiting the growth of other buds on that shoot.

Lateral buds grow along the sides of a shoot and give rise to the sideways growth that makes a plant bushy. These buds stay dormant until the shoot has grown long enough to diminish the influence of the hormones produced by the terminal bud or until the terminal bud is pruned off — before they begin their growth. If you remove lateral buds, you’ll redirect growth to the terminal bud; the shoot will lengthen dramatically and tend to grow upward.

Latent buds lie dormant beneath the bark. If a branch breaks or is cut off just above a latent bud, the bud may develop a new shoot to replace the wood that’s been removed. If you need to repair a damaged plant, look for a latent bud and cut above it.

Pruning Cuts

There are four basic pruning cuts, each aimed at producing a different effect. For cuts that involve cutting above a growth bud, make your cut as shown at left above. Angle it at about 45 degrees, with the lowest point of the cut opposite the bud and even with it — the highest point about 1/4 inch above the bud. Each of the steps below can be applied to your specific pruning need.

Step 1: Pinching

Pinching is one of the easiest ways to prune without cutting: You simply pinch off a terminal bud with your thumb and forefinger. This stops the stem from elongating and encourages bushy growth. It’s typically done on annual and perennial flowers and on some vegetables. It’s also used to direct growth of small-leaved shrubs and give the plant an even shape.

Step 2: Heading

Heading means cutting farther back on the shoot than you would for pinching. This is because the lateral bud has already grown a leaf in most cases, and you cut right above the leaf. Usually done with handheld pruners, heading stimulates the buds just below the cut, encouraging dense growth.

Step 3: Shearing

Customarily used to create a hedge or a bush with a spherical or square form, shearing is a form of heading that does not attempt to cut back to a bud. Plants are chosen for this treatment typically have many lateral buds close together, so you’ll usually end up cutting near a bud. 

Shearing stimulates many buds to produce new growth; you’ll be repeating the job regularly after you start. Because this method cuts right through leaves, it’s best done on small-leaved plants, where damage is less noticeable. Use a handheld or electric hedge shears for this kind of pruning.

Step 4: Thinning

This method reduces the bulk of a plant with minimal regrowth: Each cut removes an entire stem or branch, either back to its point of origin on the main stem or to the point where it joins another branch. 

Because you remove a number of lateral buds along with the stem or branch, you’re less likely to wind up with clusters of unwanted shoots than you would when making heading cuts. (A common mistake of inexperienced gardeners is to make a heading cut when a thinning cut is needed.) Use handheld pruners, loppers or a pruning saw to make thinning cuts, depending on the thickness of the branch being cut.

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