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Deciduous: Basic Pruning Methods

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Deciduous: Basic Pruning Methods

PSU Solution Source (7001)

Trees are the most valuable of our landscape plants. Care for them properly, and your trees will live a long and healthy life. Start tree maintenance the day you plant the tree and continue throughout its life.


Proper pruning is essential and helps your trees live longer. Good pruning keeps your trees attractive, healthy, and less susceptible to injury from natural forces such as severe storms.  On the other hand, poor pruning practices, topping in particular, make trees less attractive, more prone to pest and weather problems, and, ultimately, shortens their life span.


You may want to hire an arborist—a trained tree service professional—to prune medium and large trees. These trees deserve professional maintenance because of their landscape value.  Professional tree work will cost more, but you should view it as an investment.


If you don't have the knowledge or equipment to properly prune larger trees, you may injure yourself or damage the tree, nearby buildings, utility wires, or other landscape plants while pruning. These large pruning jobs are best left to professionals. Arborists are listed in the Yellow Pages under tree service.


If you want to prune smaller trees, here are a few helpful tips:


First, use the right tools. You can prune most shrubs and small trees with hand pruning shears, lopping shears, and a hand pruning saw.  Pruning tools are available at garden and hardware stores and through garden supply catalogs.


Although you should do most pruning from late winter through spring, other times of the year are also acceptable. Some trees, like maple and birch, will bleed when you prune them in early spring. This heavy sap flow does not hurt the tree, but you can prevent it, if you like, by pruning during the growing season. Pruning wounds are best left unpainted. Pruning paint does not stop bleeding nor prevent decay, and in some cases may even increase decay. Tree wound dressings are not recommended for most pruning cuts, including those made on maples, birch, and other bleeders to stop sap flow.


When pruning trees, there are several types of branches to remove. Prune out dead branches whenever you see them. Remove broken or diseased branches and remove the weaker of two branches that are rubbing together. Finally, prune out water sprouts and suckers.


You'll see water sprouts and suckers on flowering crabapples, hawthorns, lindens, and certain other trees. Suckers are long straight shoots that grow out of the ground from the tree's roots, usually occurring at the base of the trunk. Water sprouts are long straight shoots that grow off of the trunk and main branches.


Certain trees have multiple leaders, including maples, ash, and lindens. Trees grow best, and develop a better branch structure, when you train them to a single leader. It's important to remove all but the strongest leader early in the life of trees that are prone to developing multiple leaders.


Occasionally, you may need to remove lower branches on mature trees. You can usually do this anytime of the year. Because these branches are often large, it's best to use the three-cut pruning method for removal. To do this, make an undercut half-way through the branch, a foot out from the trunk. Make a second cut on the top side of the branch, a few inches beyond the undercut. You'll remove the branch with this second cut. Finally, remove the stub with your third cut. The three-cut method prevents the falling branch from tearing a large section of bark from the trunk.


No matter what kind of branch you're pruning, the cardinal rules of pruning are to never leave a stub and never make a flush cut. Stubs are unattractive, do not heal over and can result in decay moving into the tree. Cuts made flush to the trunk result in large wounds that take a long time to close. Make pruning cuts just beyond the branch collar. Collars are natural swellings that occur where the branch attaches to a larger limb or to the trunk of the tree.


For more information on this subject, Please visit the College of Agricultural Sciences Publications Web site.

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