Proper Pruning

Excerpt from

Follow Proper Pruning Techniques

Douglas F. Welsh, Extension Horticulturist
Everett Janne, Extension Landscape Horticulturist (retired)

Pruning should follow a definite plan. Consider the reason or purpose before cutting

By making the pruning cuts in a certain order, the total number of cuts is reduced greatly. The skilled pruner first removes all dead, broken, diseased or problem limbs by cutting them at the point of origin or back to a strong lateral branch or shoot. Often, removing this material opens the canopy sufficiently so that no further pruning is necessary.


Remove this dead stub back to the limb. The stub is the result of pruning lateral branch back to one bud. - Surface Nursery

The next step in pruning is to make any training cuts needed. By cutting back lateral branches, the tree or shrub is trained to develop a desired shape, to fill in an open area caused by storm or wind damage or to keep it in bounds to fit a given area. To properly train a plant, one should understand its natural growth habit. Always avoid destroying the natural shape or growth habit when pruning unless maintaining a close watch over the plant, for after a period of time it attempts to assume the more natural growth habit.

Make additional corrective prunings to eliminate weak or narrow crotches and remove the less desirable central leader where double leaders occur. After these cuts have been made, stand back and take a look at your work. Are there any other corrective pruning cuts necessary? If the amount of wood removed is considerable, further pruning may need to be delayed a year or so. Remove water sprouts unless needed to fill a hole or to shade a large limb until other branches develop.


Lower branches appear to have narrow crotch angles. If so, they may be removed. - Surface Nursery

In general, the best time to prune most plants is during late winter or early spring before growth begins. There are exceptions to this rule, and they will be noted under the discussion of the specific plant groups. The least desirable time is immediately after new growth develops in the spring. A great amount of food stored in roots and stems is used in developing new growth. This food should be replaced by new foliage before it is removed; if not, considerable dwarfing of the plant may occur. This is a common problem encountered in pruning.

It also is advisable to limit the amount of pruning done late in summer as new growth may be encouraged on some plants. This growth may not have sufficient time to harden off before cold weather arrives resulting in cold damage or winter kill. Prune plants damaged by storms or vandalism or ones with dead limbs as soon as possible to avoid additional insect and disease problems that may develop.

Making Pruning Cuts Correctly

To encourage rapid healing of wounds, make all cuts clean and smooth. This requires good, sharp pruning equipment. Do not leave stubs since they are usually where die back occurs. Avoid tearing the bark when removing large branches. The following provides some specifics on pruning techniques.

Most woody plants fall into two categories based on the arrangement of the buds on the twigs and branches. In general, the bud arrangements determine the plants’s typical growth habit. Buds may have an alternate or an opposite arrangement on the twigs. A plant with alternate buds usually is rounded, pyramidal, inverted pyramidal, or columnar in shape. Plants having opposite buds rarely assume any form other than that of a rounded tree or shrub with a rounded crown. The position of the last pair of buds always determines the direction in which the new shoot will grow. Buds on top of the twig probably will grow upward at an angle and to the side on which it is directed. In most instances, it is advisable to cut back each stem to a bud or branch. Selected buds that point to the outside of the plant are more desirable than buds pointing to the inside. By cutting to an outside bud, the new shoots will not grow through the interior of the plants or crisscross.


Good branch angles! - Surface Nursery

When cutting back to an intersecting (lateral) branch, choose a branch that forms an angle of no more than 45 degrees with the branch to be removed (Figure 5). Also, the branch that you cut back to should have a diameter of at least half that of the branch to be removed. Make slanting cuts when removing limbs that grow upward; this prevents water from collecting in the cut and expedites healing.


Figure 5

To “open” a woody plant, prune out some of the center growth and cut back terminals to the buds that point outward. In shortening a branch or twig, cut it back to a side branch and make the cut 1/2 inch above the bud. If the cut is too close to the bud, the bud usually dies. If the cut is too far from the bud, the wood above the bud usually dies, causing dead tips on the end of the branches. When the pruning cut is made, the bud or buds nearest to the cut usually produce the new growing point. When a terminal is removed, the nearest side buds grow much more than they normally would, and the bud nearest the pruning cut becomes the new terminal. If more side branching is desired, remove the tips of all limbs.

The strength and vigor of the new shoot is often directly proportioned to the amount that the stem is pruned back since the roots are not reduced. For example, if the deciduous shrub is pruned to 1 foot from the ground, the new growth will be vigorous with few flowers the first year. However, if only the tips of the old growth are removed, most of the previous branches are still there and new growth is shorter and less vigorous. Flowers will be more plentiful although smaller. Thus, if a larger number of small flowers and fruits are desired, prune lightly. If fewer but high quality blooms or fruits are wanted in succeeding years, prune extensively.

Training Young Trees

Young trees can be trained using pruning techniques which will help promote plant health and long life.

The first pruning after trees and shrubs are purchased consists of removing broken, crossing and pest-infested branches. The traditional recommendation of pruning up to one-third of top growth when transplanting to compensate for root loss is no longer valid, according to recent research. [For Bare-Root liners, the pruning of up to one-third of top growth at planting is still recommended by most experts. – Surface Nursery] Excessive pruning at transplanting reduces leaf area, which decreases the amount of plant energy generated which are needed to create a healthy root system. When transplanting woody plants, the only necessary pruning is the removal of broken or damaged branches. [This would be true for dormant or acclimated B&B or container grown trees. – Surface Nursery]

The central leader of a tree should not be pruned unless the leader is not wanted, as is the case with some naturally low-branched trees or where multiple-stemmed plants are desired. [We routinely “top” our trees, but we always tape a new leader back for all shade trees. – Surface Nursery] Trees with a central leader, such as Texas red oak, sweet gum or magnolia, may need little or no pruning except to eliminate branches competing with the central leader. These competing branches should be shortened. Some pruning may be necessary to maintain desired shape and to shorten extra vigorous shoots.

The height of the lowest branch can range from a few inches above the ground for screening or windbreaks, to more than 7 feet above the ground near a street or patio. Removal of lower limbs is usually done over a period of years beginning in the nursery and continuing for several years after transplanting until the desired height is reached.

The concept in training a tree called “the trashy trunk” refers to this gradual raising of the lowest branches of a tree. Lower branches on the main trunk help create a thicker trunk more quickly. [We routinely leave lower branches to increase caliper. These must be removed until the desired height is reached. Surface Nursery] A common mistake in pruning young trees is to strip them of small branches leaving only a tuft of leaves at the top of the tree. This training is incorrect and forms a weak “buggy whip” trunk. Remove lower limbs when they reach 1 inch in diameter. This prevents permanent scarring of the trunk caused by removing larger limbs.

Another important concept in training trees is light versus heavy cuts. This refers to the length of the branch being removed and the desired growth response of that branch. On a young, vigorously growing branch, if the terminal end is lightly cut back (less than 6 inches), then lateral branching is induced up and down the branch. On the contrary, if this branch is heavily cut back (from 6 inches to several feet), the one or two buds located just below the cut are forced and grow at a very rapid rate. The importance of this pruning concept lies in the development of bushy, well-shaped trees through light pruning and the often-desired invigorating effect of heavy cuts.

For greater strength, branches selected for permanent scaffolds must have a wide angle of attachment to the trunk. Branch angles less than 30 degrees from the main trunk result in a very high percentage of breakage, while those between 60 and 70 degrees have a very low breakage rate.

Vertical branch spacing and radial branch distribution are important (Figure 7). If this has not been done in the nursery, start it at transplanting.


Figure 7


Lightly prune back lateral branches to induce secondary lateral branches. - Surface Nursery

Major scaffold branches of shade trees should be vertically spaced at least 8 inches apart and preferably 20 to 24 inches apart. Closely spaced scaffolds have fewer lateral branches resulting in long, thin branches with poor structural strength.


Lateral branches are sparse with no secondary growth. Lightly prune back to promote full rounded form. - Surface Nursery

Radial branch distribution should allow five to seven scaffolds to fill the circle of space around a trunk. Radial spacing prevents one limb from overshadowing another, which in turn reduces competition for light and nutrients. Remove or prune shoots that are too low, too close or too vigorous in relation to the leader and to selected scaffold branches.

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