How to Properly Prune
Deciduous Trees & Shrubs in

Your Home Landscape, continued

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We have looked at why and when to prune your landscape’s shrubs and trees on the pervious page.  Now we look at how to do the job well.

How— Use proper pruning techniques and tools.

Tree in Wires
Tree in Utility Wires
Photo Credit: theromanceofourlives/Photobucket

Here are some general rules for pruning.  

These guidelines may seem like a lot of information but it is necessary information.  Still, some things are easier to see than to read about.  Please check the pruning instruction videos at the end of the article to see how pruning is done properly.

Look overhead first.  Never prune near power lines.  Call your local utility to take care of any trees or large shrubs that are in or close to power lines.

Decide in advance how your shrub or tree will be pruned starting from the top down.  Some questions to answer before you begin:

Prune to improve the natural growth of your tree or shrub.  Honor your plant’s natural habit and shape.  Straight lines and geometric shapes have a place in large scale or formal botanic gardens, but not at home.   In a home landscape such affectations look artificial and stilted because of the scale of the landscape.  Besides, there are no straight lines in nature.

Branch Anatomy NCSU

Figure 2.  Branch Anatomy
Illustration Credit :  North Carolina State University Extension
Pruning Trees and Shrubs

Make the proper cuts.  When pruning branches, don’t leave a stub. 

Make your cut all the way down to the collar (see illustration).  When cutting a living branch cut the main part of the branch off at a diagonal first.

Then make a cut straight across the branch (Cut A-B).  Then cut the remaining stub at a diagonal so that Cut A-C ends at the point on the trunk opposite where the branch bark ridge originates.

3 Part Cut NCSU

Figure 3.  3-Part Cut
Illustration Credit :  North Carolina State University Extension
Pruning Trees and Shrubs

Large branches over 1 ½” require a 3 part cut to make sure the cut is clean and does not damage the either the bark or new growth wood.

Small branches can be cut back to a lateral branch that intersects or a living bud.  

If you are cutting back to a lateral branch, make sure the intersecting angle is not more than 45° to the branch you are removing.  

Keep U-shaped angles of attachment whenever possible.  V-shaped angles are weak and tend to break. This is especially important for trees like Maples which have a tendency to break in the winter.

Cut off any cross-over branches or any branches that rub together.  These weaken the main branches and can cause wounds where disease or insects can enter.

Prune so that lateral branches are evenly spaced on the main leader of young deciduous trees or shrubs.  As the plant matures prune any lateral branches that are more than ½ to ¾ the diameter of the primary scaffold branch.  This discourages co-dominant stems.

Remove watersprouts and suckers annually.  They sap the life out with weak growth, and they look messy.

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Plant Structure NCSU

Plant Structure
Illustration adapted from North Carolina State University Extension,
Pruning Trees and Shrubs

Proper pruning means using the right tool for the job.

Anvil and scissor pruning shears – Hand shears are used for branches up to 1/4'’ diameter.

Lopping shears – Use these for  branches up to 1-1/2'’ diameter.

Pole pruners  are used for  branches further than an arm’s reach.  Use these with care as they don’t always make a clean cut.

Pruning and bow saws are a must in your pruning arsenal.  Use them for branches greater than  1'’ diameter.

Hedge cutters and shears are made for cutting hedges, nothing else.  You will destroy the natural plant aesthetics if you just whack away at the outside form of the shrub or tree with hedge trimmers.

Chain saws are best left to the very experienced when it comes to pruning.  If you have a pruning job that requires this amount of power, call a professional and save yourself and your plants from a lot of problems.

Always keep your pruning tools well-oiled and sharpened.A stiff, rusty action and dull blades can hurt you and the plant. 

Buy only good quality tools.  The initial investment may not seem worth it, but a quality tool will last a long time.


Texas A & M Aggie Horticulture  Follow Proper Pruning Techniques
North Carolina State University Extension   Pruning Shrubs and Trees
Purdue University Extension  Pruning Ornamental Trees and Shrubs
USDA Forestry Service  How to Prune Trees

Selected Resources

National Arbor Day Foundation — Tree Pruning Animation.
Lots of interesting information on pruning made in cooperation with the USDA Forest Service.

American Horticultural Society Pruning & Training  - Hardback
This book has over 1500 illustrations and provides step by step instructions on pruning plants from A to Z.

Proper Pruning Technique Videos


How to Prune Trees in Your Yard    A great quickie showing what and where to cut. 

How to Prune a Shrub

An excellent video instructing on why and how to prune some common landscape shrubs by the Utah State University Extension.  Five minutes well spent.

Pruning Tools for Beginners

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln Extension gives us a great visual overview of pruning tools and how to use them. 

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Want to Save Trees in Your Landscape?
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