Pruning Mature Trees
Pruning is the most common tree maintenance procedure. Although
forest trees grow quite well with only nature's pruning, landscape trees
require a higher level of care to maintain their safety and aesthetics.
Pruning should be done with an understanding of how the tree responds to
each cut. Improper pruning can cause damage that will last for the life
of the tree, or worse, shorten the tree's life.
Reasons for Pruning
Since each cut has the potential to change the growth of the tree, no
branch should be removed without a reason. Common reasons for pruning
are to remove dead branches, to remove crowded or rubbing limbs, and to
eliminate hazards. Trees may also be pruned to increase light and air
penetration to the inside of the tree's crown or to the landscape below.
In most cases, mature trees are pruned as a corrective or preventative
Routine thinning does not necessarily improve the health of a tree.
Trees produce a dense crown of leaves to manufacture the sugar used as
energy for growth and development. Removal of foliage through pruning
can reduce growth and stored energy reserves. Heavy pruning can be a
significant health stress for the tree.
Yet if people and trees are to coexist in an urban or suburban
environment, then we sometimes have to modify the trees. City
environments do not mimic natural forest conditions. Safety is a major
concern. Also we want trees to complement other landscape plantings and
lawns. Proper pruning, with an understanding of tree biology, can
maintain good tree health and structure while enhancing the aesthetic
and economic values of our landscapes.
When to Prune
Most routine pruning to remove weak, diseased or dead limbs can be
accomplished at any time during the year with little effect on the tree.
As a rule, growth is maximized and wound closure is fastest if pruning
takes place before the spring growth flush. Some trees, such as maples
and birches, tend to "bleed" if pruned early in the spring. This may be
unsightly, but is of little consequence to the tree.
A few tree diseases, such as oak wilt, can be spread when pruning
wounds allow spores access into the tree. Susceptible trees should not
be pruned during active transmission periods. Heavy pruning just after
the spring growth flush should be avoided. This is when trees have just
expended a great deal of energy to produce foliage and early shoot
growth. Removal of a large percentage of foliage at this time can stress
Making Proper Pruning Cuts
Pruning cuts should be made just outside the branch collar. The
branch collar contains trunk or parent branch tissue and should not be
damaged or removed. If trunk collar has grown out on a dead limb to be
removed, make the cut just beyond the collar. Do not cut the collar.
If a large limb is to be removed, its weight should first be reduced.
This is done by making an undercut about 12-18 inches from the limb's
point of attachment. A second cut is made from the top, directly above
or a few inches further out on the limb. This removes the limb leaving
the 12-18 inch stub. The stub is removed by cutting back to the branch
collar. This technique reduces the possibility of tearing the bark.
Specific types of pruning may be necessary to maintain a mature tree
in a healthy, safe and attractive condition.
is the removal of dead, dying, diseased, crowded, weakly attached and
low-vigor branches from the crown of a tree.
is the selective removal of branches to increase light penetration and
air movement through the crown. Thinning opens the foliage of a tree,
reduces weight on heavy limbs, and helps retain the tree's natural
removes the lower branches from a tree in order to provide clearance
for buildings, vehicles, pedestrians and vistas.
reduces the size of a tree, often for clearance for utility lines.
Reducing the height or spread of a tree is best accomplished by
pruning back the leaders and branch terminals to lateral branches that
are large enough to assume the terminal roles (at least one-third the
diameter of the cut stem). Compared to topping, this helps maintain
the form and structural integrity of the tree.
How much should be pruned?
The amount of live tissue that should be removed depends on the tree
size, species, and age, as well as the pruning objectives. Younger trees
will tolerate the removal of a higher percentage of living tissue than
mature trees. An important principle to remember is that a tree can
recover from several small pruning wounds faster than from one large
A common mistake is to remove too much inner foliage and small
branches. It is important to maintain an even distribution of foliage
along large limbs and in the lower portion of the crown. Over-thinning
reduces the tree's sugar production capacity and can create tip-heavy
limbs that are prone to failure. Mature trees should require little
routine pruning. A widely accepted rule of thumb is never to remove more
than one fourth of a tree's leaf bearing crown. In a mature tree pruning
even that much could have negative effects. Removing even a single,
large-diameter limb can create a wound that the tree may not be able to
close. The older and larger a tree becomes, the less energy it has in
reserve to close wounds and defend against decay or insect attack. The
pruning of large, mature trees is usually limited to the removal of dead
or potentially hazardous limbs.
Wound dressings were once thought to accelerate wound closure,
protect against insects and diseases, and reduce decay. However,
research has shown that dressings do not reduce decay or speed closure,
and rarely prevent insect or disease infestations. Most experts
recommend that wound dressings not be used. If a dressing must be used
for cosmetic purposes, then only a thin coating of a non-toxic material
should be applied.
International Society of Arboriculture