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How To Trim A Tree

November 16, 2015

Written by Fergus Mason.

In nature trees pretty much look after themselves, but if you have one in your yard it’s going to do a lot better if you give it some care and attention. The fact is that, in the wild, trees have a pretty high attrition rate. For every stately tree whose shade you relax under in the woods, dozens never made it past a few feet high and hundreds more perished as seedlings. Even once a wild tree reaches maturity it faces a lot of threats. Pests and disease kill many, and others fall victim to their own success.

Walking through the woods you’ll see a lot of dead branches, both on the ground and still on the tree. Many things can kill a branch, from storm damage to fungi, and once a limb has died it presents a menace to both anyone walking underneath and to the tree itself. Deadfalls can cause serious injuries if one happens to land on you, while the extra weight leaves the tree more vulnerable every time the wind gets up. In nature this is all part of the complex system that maintains a healthy balance, but it isn’t something you want in your yard. Every year thousands of homes are damaged, and many people are injured, when a branch falls or a whole tree is brought down by the weight of dead or unbalanced limbs. In almost every case the main cause was failure to trim it properly.

pruning-diagram

Trimming has other benefits too. Cutting back old branches promotes vigorous new growth, which enhances the appearance of flowering trees and boosts fruit crops. Thinning out tangled greenery lets sunlight reach into the tree’s crown, improving its general health. If you’re being bothered by squirrels or other tree-dwelling critters you can also reduce the shelter the tree provides, which might deter them from ending up on your roof. For all sorts of reasons regular trimming is good for your tree and for your property in general. Unfortunately a lot of people tend to put it off because they’re not sure how to go about it, or it sounds like a big job. The good news is that it’s perfectly manageable if you know what to do, so here’s our handy guide on how to trim a tree.

Probably the most important thing about trimming is to do it at the right time of year. That’s going to depend on what kind of tree it is. For deciduous trees it’s usually best to trim while they’re dormant, but avoid doing it in the middle of winter when frost can damage the freshly cut surfaces. Try late fall after the leaves are gone, or before new buds start to appear in spring – if you’re trimming in spring it’s usually best to do it as early as possible. Just wait until the risk of hard frosts has receded.

Fruit trees should also be trimmed while dormant, but it’s best to do flowering trees a bit later. Pruning in fall or spring will reduce the display, so instead wait until the blooms have gone and then trim. That way the new growth will be ready to produce a dazzling show of flowers next year.

Evergreens are different again. These trees never go fully dormant, but they still follow the seasons – they do most of their growing in summer. Trim them in spring after the last frost, or during the growing season. That will leave them in great shape to survive the next winter.

The tools you’ll need depend on the site of the tree. The bare minimum is a set of pruning shears for small branches, and lopping shears to handle slightly larger ones. If the tree is mature you’ll also need pole shears to reach into the crown, and some kind of saw to handle thick branches. A chainsaw is quicker but a handsaw will do. Depending on height you might also need a ladder, and protective clothing is essential. Look for ANSI-approved eye protection, and if you’re working on a ladder or cutting branches above your head get a hard hat. Work gloves will save your hands from cuts and scrapes.

Now you have to decide what branches to remove. Don’t get carried away – you can over-trim a tree, which won’t help its chances – but here are some likely candidates:

As well as these, also look for branches that make your tree unbalanced or misshapen. Selective trimming can make it better looking as well as healthier and safer.

Once you’ve identified which branches to cut, start trimming at the bottom and move upwards and outwards. This helps you maintain a natural and attractive shape. Start with the larger branches – removing them first will make it easier to manage the shape of the tree later. Always cut slightly above where the branch joins the trunk of a larger branch; don’t try to cut it off flush, or it will be harder for the tree to heal. For large branches cut from the bottom first, and go through about a third of the thickness. Then start a new cut from the top, slightly outwards of the first one. This will ensure that the branch breaks away cleanly, instead of ripping away large slabs of bark or even healthy wood.

Always check where a branch will fall before cutting it. This is especially important with large, heavy ones that can cause a lot of damage if they fall on something you’d rather keep. Don’t take risks; if a branch looks like it could land on anything, call in a professional.

Trimming a tree isn’t too difficult; it just needs the right tools and a little planning. It can make an immense difference to your property though. Well-shaped, healthy trees will give you a lot of pleasure, so it’s well worth keeping on top of the job.