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Written by davethetreecenters • June 12 Pruning Young Trees for Future Strength and Long Life – Part 2, Equipment and pruning techniques

This is the second part of an extended blog about the pruning of young trees. Many people just plant a new tree and expect it to develop perfectly all by itself. Sometimes that can happen, and a tree is just fine. Much more often, though, the best trees grow when there has been some intervention while they were young, to set them on the right path to be healthy and long-lived. If you have just stumbled on this blog, we suggest you go to Part 1, and look at the ‘why’ of pruning your new tree, and then come back here to see what equipment you need, and the basic techniques of pruning. Then move on to Part 3, where we look at the ‘how’ of the process, and guide you through the pruning steps that will give you the best trees possible.

What Equipment do I Need?

Since this is a young tree, you will not need power tools like chain saws, or other heavy pruning equipment. Your primary and best tool is a good pair of pruners – what some gardeners call ‘secateurs’. Try not to skimp on this, and stretch the budget if you can into something of high quality, that will last you decades. Many old-school gardeners swear by the Felco brand, from Switzerland – no, I don’t have any shares and receive no kick-backs. Expensive, yes, but with replaceable blades and parts, and easily maintained for many years. Whatever you buy, make sure it is the type called a ‘by-pass pruner’, which has one single blade that slides part a curved holding blade called a hook. If kept sharp these make a clean cut. The other kind, called ‘anvil pruners’, have a straight blade that lands in the middle of a flat other half, called the anvil. These cut well when new but quickly develop nicks that leave uncut spots, tearing the bark. The same nicks in a by-pass pruner cause no problems. Even when working fine, anvil pruners always leave a crushed area on one side of the stem that can lead to die-back of the branch. So always choose by-pass pruners.

Anvil Pruners on the left, By-pass Pruners on the right

If you are coming to this job a bit late, and your tree is already quite large, a pair of long-handled loppers, also with curved, by-pass blades, can be useful too. A lot depends on your own strength. A good pair of secateurs will cut surprisingly large branches if you have strong hands. Otherwise a pair of long-handled loppers will give you lots of extra power for thicker branches, even if the cut will probably not be as accurate as you can achieve with those secateurs.

You might also find a small pruning saw useful, and it can often get into tight spots where you can’t get pruners or loppers to do a clean cut. Just like the pruners, stretch the budget for a good saw. It should have a slightly curved, hooking blade – the shape helps it hold the branch – and it should cut only when you pull it, and need no pushing. This allows you to reach further. Many fold up, which is useful because it is safer to carry around the garden, or in your pocket, and folding it up protects the blade. Always clean your pruning tools after using them – rubbing alcohol will both remove sap and resin and kill any disease spores picked up. Conscientious gardeners clean their pruning tools between each tree, to avoid accidentally transferring diseases. Although you can in theory sharpen a pruning saw, it isn’t easy, and many pros just buy a new saw when it stops cutting well.

Equipment You don’t Need

The tools from your woodworking shop are not suitable for tree pruning, because they are designed to cut dry wood, and the branches of a living tree are full of sap, needing a different kind of blade to cut them successfully. So don’t frustrate yourself and damage both your tools and the tree by trying to use them. If you are getting to the job late in the life of your young tree you might in principle be able to use a small chain-saw, but the cut will be rough and more likely to become infected than the clean cuts of good hand tools.

The other thing you don’t need is any kind of pruning paint or ‘cut sealer’. Despite decades of tree surgeons and arborists telling gardeners not to use them, the myth of their value persists. Rather than protecting, they actually encourage disease. How? Because within aa year or two they dry and crack, trapping water beneath the covering, and creating the perfect environment for disease spores to germinate and grow. So don’t buy it, and if you have some, throw it away.

The Basic Pruning Cuts

To reduce disease problems and allow for good healing it’s important to learn how to use your pruners properly. The first basic is to always use them so that the hook is on the part that will be cut off – see the diagram higher up.

Secondly, with young branches that have buds always cut just above a bud – preferably outward-facing in most situations. Slope the cut about 45o down and away from the bud – this encourages the best seal is made. Long pieces of wood above a bud won’t sprout and instead decay, often causing the branch to die back further. When buds are in pairs on either side of the stem, cut straight across. A picture speaks a thousand words:

When removing a branch completely, it’s necessary to cut in just the right place to allow the bark to quickly cover the cut end and not leave a permanent scar. Bad cuts leave exposed areas of wood that is a target for fungi that one day could rot the stem or even the whole heart of the tree. In most trees there is a swollen area at the base of the branch, called the collar. Always cut just above that collar, because it is the source of the callus tissue that will grow over the cut wound. Remove it and the scar will be visible and open to infection for many years. Usually when pruning a developing tree removing larger branches shouldn’t be necessary, but if it is, notice the 3 cuts done with a saw so that the branch doesn’t tear down the trunk, One part way through underneath, one further out to remove most of the branch, and then a third to remove the stub at the correct spot.

Again, these diagrams say it all:

Moving On

In the next and final part of this blog series we will look at how to assess your young tree and make the necessary pruning steps to create the healthiest and longest-lived tree possible.