How To Trim and Prune Your Trees

Tree Trimming 101

Whether you’re planning to prune your trees yourself, or hiring a local tree service and you want to learn the basics. This step by step guide will cover everything you need to know to be able to safely begin trimming your trees.

Proper tree trimming before and after

Mature trees can increase your property value by 7-19%, so it’s important to maintain their health and beauty by learning the basics of tree trimming. Even though professional tree services can be costly up front, it’s well worth the investment when done right. If pruning involves climbing, ladders, or cutting branches near obstacles like power lines, it is best to hire an ISA certified arborist. To learn how much tree trimming should cost in Austin Texas, check out our previous post about this topic.

Correct way to prune trees for roof clearance before and after

Tree trimming step by step guide:

Step 1: Check for hazards and call an ISA certified arborist if the tree needs to be climbed or if the branches hang over your property.

Step 2: Decide why you want to prune. Is it general maintenance, shaping, light/air penetration, stunting/encouraging growth, or creating a view?

Step 3: Evaluate your tree. Spend a few moments looking at the tree’s size and shape and imagining how it should look when you are finished.

Step 4: Make sure you are pruning during the proper season to achieve your goals. 

Step 5: Identify the skeleton of the tree. These will be the largest branches near the core. Avoid cutting these.

Step 6: Learn proper pruning technique for different types of branches. It’s important to use the right kind of cut.

Step 7: Remove branches that are dead, damaged or diseased by checking for discoloration of bark, signs of mold, fungus, or decay.

Step 8: Remove the branches that are rubbing together or growing back toward the tree. Thin branches that are growing too densely.

Step 9: Safely prune branches that pose a potential threat to utilities, structures, or property.

Step 10: Stand back and look at your tree. Carefully prune outer branches to improve the overall shape. Avoid over-pruning by pruning once per year (twice at the most) and by removing 20% or less of your tree’s canopy when you trim.

Step 1: Check for hazards

How to avoid harm to you and your tree while trimming

Although we are providing these basic tree pruning instructions, we recommend contacting an ISA Certified Arborist for anything more than basic tree care. Pruning trees incorrectly can not only damage your trees, but also result in injuries or death for untrained individuals. An arborist is a specialist in the care of individual trees. ISA Certified Arborists are knowledgeable about the needs of trees and are trained and equipped to provide proper care. 

When to Contact an Arborist:

  • The tree cannot be pruned from the ground (requires ladders or climbing).
  • The tree has been identified as hazardous (disease, fungus, infestation).
  • The tree is near electrical or other utility lines.
  • The branch(es) that need to be pruned are large (12”+ diameter).

Tree Pruning Safety Tips:

  • Keep pruning equipment sharp, clean, and in good operating condition.
  • Make clean cuts.
  • Be careful with all tools.
  • When pruning trees that show evidence of disease, disinfect pruning equipment between trees (Lysol works fine). 
  • Always wear personal protective safety equipment, including safety glasses, while pruning.

Step 2: Decide why you want to prune

Why trimming and pruning are important

In the forest, trees are free to play by their own rules. They can spread their limbs, stretch their branches high, and send old, weak limbs down to the forest floor in a freefall. 

That’s where pruning comes in! While you may have heard the term and know it has something to do with trimming your trees, read on to learn exactly what pruning is, why you should prune, and how to prune. Pruning is the deliberate removal of tree branches and limbs to achieve a specific objective in the alteration of a tree’s health and form. It’s the most significant tree maintenance practice due to costs and impact on the tree, but can extend the useful life of your tree by decades.

Trees may need to be pruned to:

  • Remove dead or hazardous branches
  • Maintain vehicular, pedestrian, and sight clearance
  • Improve the tree structure, e.g. balancing crown weight to avoid future leaning
  • Increase light or air penetration
  • Improve tree aesthetics

Step 3: Evaluate your tree

Spend a few moments looking at the tree’s size and shape and imagining how it should look when you are finished. (explain a bit about the different shapes and their purposes – maybe link to another article)

Image of different tree pruning structures

Other things to look out for: 

  • Check for suckers (vigorous shoots that develop near the ground) and for water sprouts (vigorous shoots that grow on trunks or side branches) it is best to remove these to direct energy into upper canopy growth.

Suckers and water sprouts on tree branches

  • Are there any dead limbs in the tree? Dead limbs attract insects and provide opportunities for diseases to develop. 

Dead tree branch

  • Can you spot any crossing branches? These can rub together and open wounds on the tree that invite problems later on, even oak wilt.

Rubbing tree branches

  • Is the low center of the tree packed with dense branches? Lower scaffold branches of a tree are an important respiratory area that is better when kept open to allow sunlight and airflow to penetrate and prevent damaging decay. 

  • You  need to check to see if the root collar is free of obstructions like mulch piled in a volcano around the base. Root collars must be left exposed since this too is a respiratory area for the tree.

Consider proper pruning practices

Certain pruning practices are not acceptable and can injure trees. These include:

  • Topping: The reduction of a tree’s size using heading cuts that shorten limbs or branches back to a predetermined crown limit. (cutting a trees canopy in half arbitrarily)

example of tree topping

  • Lion’s Tailing: The removal of an excessive number of inner, lateral branches from parent branches. Also known as lollipopping.

Example of lions tail tree trimming

  • Rooster-Tailing: The over-thinning of palms, usually by removing too many lower, live fronds. 

example of rooster tail tree trimming

Step 4: Decide when to prune your trees

“Most trees can be pruned year-round, if pruned properly,” says Tchukki Andersen, BCMA, CTSP and staff arborist for the Tree Care Industry Association. “However, certain pruning operations are easier to do in the winter, especially if the ground is frozen or the tree is not actively growing.”

Your reason for pruning impacts when you should prune, so think back to your reasons from step 2. Routine maintenance pruning of dead or dying branches can be done at any time, but if you have other goals then you’ll need to plan your trimming around the seasons.

Trimming trees in winter

If you prune in the winter you’ll see an explosion of growth in the spring because the tree doesn’t waste its energy foliating unwanted branches.

Trimming trees in summer

Pruning during the summer will slow the growth of the cut branches, so it’s a good strategy if you’re trying to shape your tree or slow the growth of branches you don’t want.

Trimming trees in the dormant season

Generally speaking however, the best time to prune living branches is in the dormant season. Dormancy is the period in autumn.

For new trees, inspect for pruning needs annually. Prune trees regularly throughout their life to keep them healthy, safe, and aesthetically pleasing.

Do not defer pruning until limbs get large. Large limbs equal large wounds, which are more difficult for a tree to seal and leave the tree open to disease, insects, and rot. Do not prune trees on a crisis-only basis. Do not attempt to reduce tree size as a substitute for proper tree selection and placement. Known as topping, this is incredibly damaging to trees. 

Here in Austin, Texas some of the most common tree species I see are Oaks, Elms, Cedars, Crepe Myrtles, Bradford Pear, Hackberry, and Fruit Trees. 

Oaks:

  • The best time to trim oak trees in Austin Texas is in the fall and winter.
  • It is critical to avoid trimming during oak wilt season (February-July) if at all possible.
  • Live oaks typically do a leaf exchange in late winter so it is better to trim them in late fall or early winter.
  • Removing Dead and broken branches can be done at any time.

Elms:

  • Elms are hardy and native to Texas. They are typically the first to get their leaves and the first to lose their leaves.
    Trimming elms in the fall and in the winter is best to avoid sap leaking.
  • Elms are prone to rot where large pruning cuts are made.
  • We can trim our elms year round since Austin Texas is not an area where Dutch Elm Disease is present.

Cedars:

  • Cedars are native and common throughout central Texas. This tree often forms extensive low forests or dense “cedar breaks” on the limestone hills and slopes of the Austin Hill Country and the Edwards Plateau. 
  • Considered an invasive weed species over much of its range.
  • In Texas we generally trim cedars any time of year but if you want to prune at the optimal time for this species June and July is your best bet

Crape Myrtles:

  • Crepe Myrtles produce flowers on each year’s new growth.
  • Trimming in the fall leads to more blossoms in the spring.
  • Trimming in the late spring will reduce the number of flowers the following year.
  • For the health of the crape myrtle, the best time to trim is winter. 
  • YOU SHOULD NEVER TOP CREPE MYRTLES. Protect Austin’s Crepe Myrtles by reading our last post about this topic. Topping destroys the trees natural beauty and leaves it vulnerable to infestation and disease. 

Bradford Pears:

  • You can safely trim Bradford pears at any time.
  • Proper structural pruning when needed is very important for Bradford pears because their natural growth patterns often lead to weakness at branch joints.

 Hackberries:

  • Hackberries are generally considered a “trash tree” by most Texas homeowners because their wood is weak and prone to breaking especially during high stormwinds. 
  • If you have hackberries in your yard that you’d like to keep, it is critical that you keep the tree well pruned to make the tree as strong as it can be.
  • Hackberry trees are fast growers, able to put 2 feet of height on each year
  • It is best to prune during the winter months but with these trees you can really trim any time of year in Texas.

Fruit Trees:

  • Structural pruning for fruit trees should be done in the winter.
  • Trimming for fruit production should be done just after bloom in early spring.

Step 5: Identify the skeleton of the tree

These branches make up the primary structure of the tree, they are generally the largest tree branches that make up the lower and upper scaffold (lateral branches in the lower and upper canopy) and the leader (the tallest vertical branch). Generally speaking we do not remove these branches unless they create issues with driveway / walkway clearance or if they pose a threat to structures around your property. 

skeleton of the tree before and after pruning

Step 6: Use proper pruning technique

Young and mature trees have different pruning needs. On new trees, prune only dead, broken, crossed, or rubbing branches.  A young tree can survive the removal of up to one-third of its foliage in a growing season, but do not remove more than 20% of the foliage of a mature tree in any one growing season. Do not make indiscriminate cuts on large branches in an attempt to lower the height of the tree. This is called topping and is one of the worst things you can do to your trees.

Future Hazards

You may wish to prevent future hazards in mature trees by removing branches that may become problematic in the future. Branches with splits and cracks at a joint can be weak. Multiple branches attached to one spot on the trunk can also be trouble spots. U-shaped joints are stronger than narrow V-shaped unions, which can harbor disease-causing debris. Broken branches, whether partially attached or completely separated from the tree, are called hangers or widow makers. They are extremely hazardous and likely to fall; they should be removed promptly. The same is true for deadwood.

broken tree branch in austin texas

Tree-Training

To reach their full potential in maturity, young trees should be trained. Training is careful, thoughtful pruning that creates strong trunk and branch structure and a visually pleasing form. This influences future performance, landscape potential, and safety.

Correct pruning of young trees will improve structural stability, increase tree longevity, and decrease maintenance costs. Trained trees will have fewer branches but better spacing. With fewer structural defects when mature, trained trees reduce the need for costly corrective measures later.

The process of training young trees directs growth to fulfill the landscape function, reduces structural defects that may lead to tree failure, and ultimately decreases hazard potential and liability risks. Well-maintained trees are an asset to any landscape.

example of tree when not pruned

well trained tree

Proper Pruning Technique

Proper pruning takes skill and practice. To minimize the amount of exposed wood, make small cuts and conserve as many living branches as possible. You should remove excess end weight with preliminary cuts to avoid tearing bark. Always prune trees back to the parent branch. When you prune back a lateral branch that is at least one-third the diameter of the branch being pruned, avoid cutting the trunk or branches that you are not actively pruning. Do not remove more than one-quarter of the foliage from a branch unless you are removing the entire branch.

Every branch has a swell at the base, where it meets the trunk of the tree. This is known as the branch collar. You need to make pruning cuts further away from the trunk than the collar.

diagram of a proper pruning cut

The three-cut pruning method.

Adapted with permission by Alex Shigo, Modern Arboriculture.

  1. Make a shallow cut on the underside of the branch, away from the collar. This will prevent bark tears if the branch drops suddenly.
  2. Just beyond the partial cut, cut through the branch to remove the bulk of the weight.
  3. Finish the prune by cutting through the branch just outside the branch collar.

The two most common pruning errors are known as “flush cuts” and “stub cuts.” Both of these errors happen during Cut 3. A flush cut is a cut that injures or removes the branch collar. A stub cut leaves too much branch past the collar. Stub and flush cuts can open your tree to pests, disease, and decay.

stub cut and flush cut examples of bad pruning

Pruning is much more than the simple act of sawing off limbs. Proper pruning is an art based on scientific principles of plant physiology. At its most basic level, pruning trees involves removing damaged, dead or structurally weak limbs, which will improve a tree’s health and reduce the chances of personal or property damage caused by falling limbs. More advanced pruning methods aid in improving the tree’s structure and long-term health.

Advantages of Pruning

Proper pruning encourages growth, increases flower and fruit production, improves plant health and removes damaged limbs, all which give aesthetic appeal to a tree. Pruning at the right time and in the right way is critical, since it is possible to kill a tree by neglect or over-pruning. Pruning at the wrong time can be damaging to tree tissues. 

Arborists adhering to proper pruning standard will not:

  • Leave branch stubs
  • Make unnecessary heading cuts
  • Cut off the branch collar (not make a flush cut)
  • Top or lion’s tail trees (stripping a branch from the inside leaving foliage just at the ends)
  • Remove more than 25 percent of the foliage of a single branch
  • Remove more than 25 percent of the total tree foliage in a single year
  • Damage other parts of the tree during pruning
  • Use wound paint
  • Prune without a good reason
  • Climb the tree with climbing spikes

Do not seal or paint cuts after trimming

Sealing paint can interfere with the tree’s natural healing process. Allowing the tree to form wound wood and seal cuts itself leads to increased tree vigor and quicker recovery. However, when there is a risk for certain diseases, like oak wilt, painting tree trimming wounds is an important protective measure.

Best tools to use for tree trimming

Here at Wilder Tree Company we use an array of top of the line Stihl chainsaws. We use modular pole pruners with interchangeable heads to saw branches or prune them with shears. We use large heavy duty dump trailers to carry all the wood to recycling centers around Austin Texas. For more information on the best tools to use when doing your own pruning check out our previous post. 

Step 7: Remove dead, damaged or diseased branches 

Dead Wood

A dead branch is a branch where all the cells have died and it will not come back. It is not dormant, although it can look like dormant branches on the tree in winter. The dead branch will not produce leaves or buds in the spring and can sometimes start to grow fungi. On the other hand, the wood tissue within a dormant branch is completely alive, waiting for a chemical signal to start working again.

When the wood of trees and shrubs die, there are a few, often subtle signs:

  • The presence or absence of leaves out of season
  • A lack of buds at the nodes
  • Hollow wood and missing bark
  • Fungus or mushrooms growing out of the wood

dead wood in a tree

Damaged Wood

With damaged wood the entire branch or limb is not dead. In some cases the branch will still have foliage and be functioning well. However this damage will cause weakness and trouble down the road.

One common example is an impact to a tree that penetrates the bark, such as from a vehicle collision or a mower or string trimmer. This creates a dead zone that the plant will try to heal over time. If the damage is deep, healing cannot cover it completely.

A stem that has been bent too far can permanently crease the wood or snap it completely. A crease interrupts sap flow and the plant is likely to die back to the bend over time.

Whenever damage is beyond minor, it’s best to remove the hurt branch to let a stronger one take its place.

broken branch in tree

Diseased Wood

Disease comes to plants in many forms, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. You can also think of infestations by insects as disease because they begin in one part of the plant and spread throughout, harming it as they reproduce.

Unlike wood that is simply dead or broken, diseased wood contains a living inoculant that can still spread and re-infect the living plant even after you cut it off. These may be insect eggs in the wood, fungus spores or bacteria that can leap through the air riding splashes of rain onto a new plant.

For these reasons, it is not enough to just cut off diseased wood—you must remove it from the site as trash or destroy it by burning. You should also disinfect tools that cut into diseased wood before using them to cut again into good wood.

Oak Wilt

The most common disease in Texas is oak wilt. It’s a fungal disease that attacks the vascular system of oak trees. In red oaks the disease is nearly 100% fatal, in live oaks infections have about a 70% mortality. The most common way for trees to contract oak wilt is underground through shared root networks with infected trees or over land by insect vectors. 

As oak trees grow their root systems are mostly lateral as opposed to being deep, which means that the roots can extend many times further than their canopy with only a few horizontal roots adding structural stability. The reason for this is that the tree needs to keep its roots in less compacted, oxygenated soil for its feeder roots to be able to do their job. This also means that all the oaks in your yard, and sometimes entire neighborhoods, probably have interconnected systems that have grafted together. Since oak wilt can spread through root systems, one tree gets sick and it can quickly spread to many others. 

Insects

Insect Vectors: Nitidulid (sap feeding) beetles can smell wounded oak trees, and spread the fungus as they feed, and travel between trees. These insects are active February through August but peak activity is March through May. This is why people are so wary about when they trim their oaks, and why historically people have been eager to paint all their cuts with tree spray no matter when they prune. 

oak wilt in live and red oaks

Mistletoe

Because mistletoe derive their water and nutrients from their host, they can harm trees. A mistletoe infection could weaken the tree’s ability to fight off other parasites, or properly compartmentalize decay and wounds. Hire an ISA Certified Arborist in Austin who can diagnose and recommend the proper treatment.

mistletoe in a tree

Step 8: Remove rubbing branches 

Remove the branches that are rubbing together or growing back toward the tree. You should also thin branches that are growing too densely to prevent this from happening in the future.

branches rubbing in a tree causing wounds

Step 9: Trim branches threatening utilities, structures, or property

Dangers of trimming

Pruning branches that pose a potential threat to utilities, structures, or property is extremely dangerous to you, your home, and any other nearby property. If at any point you feel unsure about a particular cut, it’s best to stop and ask for help rather than take a chance, the dangers are real and can be very serious. Trimming near power lines can result in power outages, personal injury, and death. Branches extending over your roof require climbing the tree or getting on the roof, both of which can result in serious injury or death. You must properly rig Branches to prevent property damage. Even if you do decide to hire a company, make sure they have insurance to safeguard you from potential liability in the event of an accident. 

How branches can hurt your home

Tree branches that hang over your roof or encroach on the exterior walls of your house can cause many kinds of damage:

  • A diseased or damaged tree can fall onto the house, potentially causing severe damage
  • Storms can knock branches off of a tree and damage the home or bring down power lines
  • Branches can damage roof shingles by brushing against the roof in the wind
  • The weight of leaves, branches, and other accumulated objects can damage your roof
  • Squirrels, insects and other critters can gain easier access to your roof, and possibly your attic, via branches that have grown too close to the house
  • Leaves that fall onto the roof can cause mold or algae growth
  • Falling leaves can clog your gutters, and the resulting buildup of rainwater can cause wood rot and other harm

Step 10: Final touches 

Stand back and look at your tree. If there are any branches sticking out at odd angles make your final cuts to improve overall shape and balance. Avoid over-pruning by never pruning more than once a year and by only removing 20% or less of your tree’s canopy when you trim.
Now that your tree is trimmed, all you have to do is clean up! Check out our last post where we talked about tips to clean up like a pro. Make sure you dispose of yard waste responsibly. We Remove diseased or infested wood to avoid harm to other trees. 

example of a well trimmed live oak tree

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