How to Prune Trees: Read This Now, Before You Ruin Your Yard and Your Life


Any homeowner with a yard will want to learn how to prune trees. After all, foliage is a valuable feature on a property, even more so if it’s well maintained. Plus, pruning isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, but important to a tree’s health. And maybe yours, too!

“Pruning allows air to freely circulate through the tree, which helps prevent disease and promote better flowering,” says Jeff McManus, the director of landscape services at the University of Mississippi and author of “Growing Weeders Into Leaders.” Another bonus: Better air circulation keeps the tree from falling over (and onto your house!) in high winds.

While you could hire a landscaper, any homeowner can learn how to prune trees. Here are the steps, tools, and timing info to do it right.

When to prune trees

“The best time to prune trees is generally in the late winter or early spring,” says McManus“The reason for this is that it’s easier to see the limbs while they’re bare, pruning cuts will heal faster, and it’s right before the tree starts to grow anew in the warmer weather.”

How to prune trees: Tools you’ll need

Step 1: Remove the dead weight

Step 1 is pretty simple: If it looks sick, remove it. You don’t want to leave anything on the tree that will impede new growth. If a limb is diseased, it could infect other healthy branches, so get it off. Same with any dead leaves, fruit, flowers, or limbs. Plus, “limbs that touch your home or roofline should always be removed,” says McManus.

Step 2: Work from the inside out

Once all the dead stuff is off, “move to the inside of the tree and remove twiggy horizontal growth that crosses the center,” says McManus. “I also like to remove any crossing or rubbing branches and water sprouts, which are branches growing straight up in the center.”

Once you’ve worked your way to the outside branches, trim any limbs that are growing out of bounds. A well-manicured tree generally looks symmetrical, so if something is sticking out or one side looks bushier than the other, try to get the tree in balance. Also check the tree from several angles.

Prune those water sprouts in the center of the tree.
Prune those water sprouts in the center of the tree.Growing Weeders Into Leaders/Allie Bush

Step 3: Look for the wrinkles

When removing an entire limb, you want to prune close to the trunk and above the wrinkles. “Look for the rings of wrinkled bark where the limb meets the trunk and cut just outside the wrinkled ring,” says McManus. “This helps the wound heal naturally.”

When pruning a limb to the trunk, cut above the wrinkles.
When pruning a limb to the trunk, cut above the wrinkles.trainingyoungtrees/

If you don’t need to remove an entire limb, look instead for an outwardly growing side shoot or side bud (this doesn’t mean a flower bud, but rather a bulging spot on the limb where the tree will launch new growth). Cut at a slight angle (about 45 degrees) just above the shoot or bud.

Step 4: Use a three-cut method for larger limbs

For limbs larger than 1.5 inches in diameter, you should use the three-cut method to remove the limb in order to keep from damaging the tree. If the bark tears or is pulled off the tree as the limb drops to the ground, it’s tough for the tree to heal quickly, and may even lead to future damage of the trunk. The three-cut method helps prevent that from happening.

  1. Using your pruning saw, make a cut along the bottom of the branch, about 4 inches away from the trunk of the tree. Cut about one-third of the way in. This cut is a preventive one that keeps the bark on the limb from pulling away, down the trunk of the tree, as it’s being removed.
  2. Once the first cut is done, move about 2 inches outward from the first cut. This is where you’ll make a second cut—this time on the top of the limb, removing the limb by cutting straight down, parallel to the first cut.
  3. After most of the limb is removed, you can cut closer to the rings of wrinkled bark where the limb once met the trunk. Cutting off this last stub will help this wound heal naturally.

Step 5: Before you cut, always ask why

“Never remove more than 25% of the tree when pruning,” instructs McManus. “And keep in mind, most newly planted flowering trees need very little, if any, pruning.”

A good rule of thumb to stave off over-pruning: Question your cuts before you make them. “I teach others to ask, ‘I am cutting this limb because…’ since this will help you examine your cuts and keep you from removing too much,” says McManus.

Leslie Sells Houses


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