How Do YOU Trim A Tree?

By Tree Expert Codey Stout
Updated On

Are you wondering how to prune trees?

You’ve come to the right place!

In this Tree Triage guide, you’ll learn:

  • How to trim a tree the right way.
  • Why it’s important to trim trees.
  • When your trees should be trimmed.

And much more!

How To Trim A Tree

So, if you’re looking for help on trimming trees, keep reading our detailed guide below to get answers to all of your questions!

How To Trim A Tree The Right Way

Most homeowners eventually run into the issue of needing to trim their trees to keep them strong, healthy, and beautiful. While this might seem daunting, trimming trees isn’t always difficult and can be a good DIY activity.

Plus, proper pruning is the best thing you can do to keep your trees healthy. However, improper pruning and topping (cutting the top of the tree) kills more trees per year than animals do.

This is why taking the time to learn how to properly trim and care for your trees can make a huge impact on how your yard looks for years to come. Let’s walk through the basics so you can tackle your tree trimming project like a pro!

The Difference Between Pruning and Trimming

Pruning a tree

Pruning a tree involves removing dead, sick, or broken branches or stems that are no longer useful to the plant itself. It can also be used when the direction of growth needs to be corrected.

Tree trimming is the act of cutting back a tree’s overgrowth to shape it over time. 

By correctly pruning or trimming a tree, more energy and nutrients are focused on the areas of the tree that can best use them for vigorous growth.

Whether it’s a matter of aesthetics, adding value to your property, beautifying your home and neighborhood, or maintaining your tree’s health, there are plenty of reasons to make tree care a regular part of your home maintenance routine. 

Whether you decide to prune or trim your trees, taking care of them correctly is also a preventive measure. Eliminating natural hazards like sagging, broken, or encroaching branches can save you from potential property damage. Plus, if you let these issues run their course, it can lead to tree disease, infection, and rot. 

When you get into the rhythm of regularly trimming your trees to maintain their shape and pruning off troublesome branches, you also become more aware of potential infestations, sicknesses, and issues that could arise with them before they become catastrophic.

This is why learning how to properly trim a tree to facilitate growth and prune a tree to maintain its health is an essential part of maintaining the safety of your property and the health of your yard.

Common Tree Trimming and Pruning Tools

Let’s take a look at the most common hand and power tools you’ll need to DIY this work. 

  1. Loppers and Lopping Shears (good for leverage and reach on smaller branches)
  2. Pole Saws and Pole Loppers (powered and hand- usually are 10ft. in length, but often are extendable)
  3. Hand Pruners and Pruning Shears (for smaller, closer, easier cuts)
  4. Pruning Saws, Bow Saws, or Rat-Tail Saws (various triple-edged toothed saws)
  5. Chainsaws (Usually optional for this work, unless larger cuts are needed. They shouldn’t be used on smaller limbs as you can achieve cleaner cuts with smaller hand tools.)

Remember, tool maintenance is important for safety and for the health of your trees. Keep all of your tools well-oiled and sharpened in order to cut as cleanly as possible. Cuts can then be made without crushing, stripping, or tearing the tree’s bark. 

Triple-edged tooth saws should be able to quickly and cleanly move through the wood. If you can’t sharpen your saws yourself, find someone locally who can so you can make clean pruning cuts, using less sweat equity on your part.

We also recommend using rubbing alcohol on your cutting tools, the hand-saws too. This common practice is done so that you reduce the possibility of transmitting disease from one tree to another.

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Safety Equipment

Aside from the standard trimming and pruning tools, it’s also important to gather the proper safety equipment to keep your hands, head, eyes, and ears safe during the process.

  1. Leather gloves – much better than cloth garden gloves for working with wood. 
  2. A hardhat – especially for overhead work on branches.
  3. Goggles – these are the preferred safety eyewear, especially to stop sawdust from getting in your eyes like it can with standard safety glasses. This can be especially dangerous if you are actually in the tree you’re trimming, rather than safely working from the ground.
  4. Ear protection – if you’re working with power tools.

Stub Cut Length

When it comes to cutting away the remaining wood after you’ve trimmed a branch, a good rule of thumb is if you can hang a hat on the stub you’ve just made, it’s too long. It may be a bit of an overstatement, but you get the point. 

If you can hang a hat on the stub you just made, it's too long.

Similarly, you should never cut too close to a vertical, or feeder branch. It’s better to leave too much and then trim down in a more controlled manner than to cut too close and cause a wound on the feeder branch. 

Before starting any cuts, take a long, assessing look at your tree. What would you like it to look like? Are you just cleaning it up and it’s pretty obvious as to just how you’d like to proceed? If so, good.

Mature trees can’t be changed much as far as their structure is concerned, but they should certainly be maintained to help them look good and continue to move their resources to where they need to be. It’s surprising what a good clean-up of a tree can do, besides letting in more light to help the blooms and the tree as a whole, the tree will reflect your care. 

Finally, an added benefit to thinning congested trees is a greater internal air-flow. This can help reduce various types of fungal growth that can be detrimental to some trees.

How Much Do I Cut?

A general rule of thumb is if it’s a relatively young tree, no more than 25% should be cut at any given time. If it’s a mature tree, no more than 10% of live foliage should be pruned or trimmed away. Of course, all of the dead, broken, or lateral branches can be cleared at any time.

Structural pruning may begin the second or third year after planting and every other year thereafter. After about year 10, it’s a good idea to bring in one of our tree specialists to take a look at your tree from a structural perspective to determine which cuts will make the biggest impact. 

What Are The 3 Key Cuts When Trimming Or Pruning A Tree?

You can avoid tearing up your tree’s bark by using these 3 sequential cuts anytime you’re pruning and trimming your tree. 

Adopting this method will not only help your tree recover from the cut, while not causing further damage, but it will also make ‘dropping’ those limbs easier and safer..

Cut 1

At a distance of at least 12 – 18” from your planned final cut (usually at the branch collar), on the underside of the branch, saw in an upward direction. Make your first cut 1/3 of the way through the tree limb you want to remove.

3 Steps For Trimming A Tree Branch

Cut 2

On the outside of the first cut, add at least 4″ and prepare to cut. Sawing this time from the top of the branch downward, make your second cut. Now the limb will drop straight down to the ground, without causing further damage to the tree.

Cut 3

Begin your final cut to drop the remaining stub. Just outside of the branch bark ridge, continuing at a slight (30 degrees) outward angle, finish your cut just outside the branch collar. You’ve now just successfully dropped your first branch and made a stub cut. 

Final Step: The Stub Cut

Every time you prune, look for competing, broken, dead, downward-growing, or sucker branches (shoots that grow from the ground of the main trunk) and clear them all. Also, you can thin some of the clusters of water sprouts (mid-branch shoots), if you want to.

Tree Wound Dressing

It is not necessary or appropriate to paint or dress pruning wounds. In fact, some of these coverings actually inhibit the healing of the wound. Trees do have all the resources they need to heal the wound themselves, just do your best to deliver clean cuts without tearing the bark.

There are some rare exceptions to this. For example, oak trees in some parts of Texas need to have their wounds dressed. Those wounds are covered because of the prevalence of oak wilt, which is transmitted by beetles via open, or fresh cut wounds.

Do Not Top Trees!

Sometimes homeowners decide to “top” their trees because they think the tree is getting too big for their yard or outgrowing its place. Unfortunately, topping your trees tends to cause more problems than it might seem to solve in the short term. 

Instead of making intelligent, well-thought-out cuts, the topped tree has a slow-to-heal wound and will send reactive rapid-growth signals to produce weakly attached branches. These new branches will shoot up and quickly make the tree taller than it was in the first place, prior to topping.

Generalists, handymen, neighbors, and tree care services that suggest the topping of your trees should be questioned and likely avoided. We rarely, if ever, recommend such a traumatic cut when pruning a tree for size. Topping is not a preferred practice, but in certain instances, when done by a professional, it does have its place.

That said, very young fruit trees can be topped to encourage low bushy growth. When horizontal branches are left uncut, they will usually produce earlier and heavy crops. 

We wouldn’t recommend taking on a topping cut yourself, though, even in the case of fruit trees. If you think your tree might need to be topped, please give our specialists a call to come out and take a look at it. We’re always happy to help offer recommendations.

Tips For Trimming Thicker Tree Branches

When it comes to thicker branches, we always recommend getting advice from our tree-service professionals, on-site if possible. Understand that dropping branches of even nominal size or height can be extremely dangerous. 

Generally, larger cuts will be made using the same 3 cut method as described above because this gives the tree the best chance for a quick recovery. However, there are several other factors at play when working with thicker, heavier branches.

Larger Trees, Chainsaws, and Ladders

Climbing a tree with a chainsaw is best left to the professionals. Remember, to safely remove larger branches, they’re going to tie off limbs with pulleys and rigging (block and tackle) to safely ‘drop’ them in a controlled manner. 

The climbers, or arborists themselves, will be strapped into the tree with rigging. Or, they’ll enter the tree from an extension ladder. Sometimes we’ll even use the bucket of a lift truck to gain access to a branch. 

However, if you have some work you’d like to do yourself (or with a friend), be sure to have a purpose and a plan before making any cuts at all. It’s always better to think things through and cut too little than to cut too much. It’s also always better to assume the branch will go the way you don’t want it to go, so prepare accordingly. 

Finally, any work that can be done from the ground should be done from the ground. By using a pole saw (powered or not) and (pole) loppers, you can get quite a bit done without ever having to climb a ladder. Fiberglass handles are lighter than wood, and also don’t conduct electricity. 

Remember, ladders on uneven ground are dangerous, especially if you’re reaching up and over your head and shifting your weight to achieve a cut. Even the most ‘safe feeling’ ladder-stance can tip under you when the ground isn’t solid or level. 

Note: Never use a chainsaw while on a ladder. Trying to reach the one last cut while you’re out pruning trees is simply not worth the risk. 

Why Is It Important To Trim Trees?

Homeowners often overlook the fact that trees actually add to the market value of their homes (and to the value of the neighborhood). This is just another reason on a long list of why it’s a great idea to give your trees the best care possible.

In fostering healthy trees, it’s to your advantage to understand how to prune, trim and train them. In doing so, you and your trees will thrive and enjoy the benefits of a good, strong branch structure for years to come. 

V Joints and U Joints

When understanding how to properly trim and prune trees, it’s important to know the difference between V joints and U joints.

V Joints are a “V” shaped crotch at the junction of two branches and they are often weak. This means they’re more likely to split under the weight of heavy snow and ice or even their own fruit. This is why It’s generally a good idea to remove those lesser branches as they can be a hazard to not only the tree but to people as well.

U Joints, on the other hand, are “U” shaped branch formations at the junction of two branches that are typically much stronger. A tree with strong U joints is much more likely to support the weight of its branches along with snow, ice, and fruit. They are often a result of a tree’s branches being cut and managed correctly.

Mature trees will already have developed their branch structure, so for them, maintenance is mostly a matter of keeping them trimmed, clean, and healthy. 

However, if the previous steward of the tree didn’t do a good job, or you can see how the tree might benefit from your planned prune, then making precise cuts might be a good idea. 

When Should Trees Be Trimmed? 

The best time to do your trimming work is within the tree’s dormant season, which is late winter. 

This is because it’s much easier to cut trees (especially deciduous trees) when they don’t have their leaves. It will give you more room to work and get a better view of the tree’s branch structure and what you might like to change (within reason and depending on its age).

The worst time of year to trim your tree’s branches is in early spring. This is because the growing season is gearing up and it’s better to have the tree work on building up its nutrients and blooming, rather than healing cut wounds. However, you can make some cuts, but keep them under that 10% rule of thumb we mentioned earlier..

When it comes to fruit trees, however, newly planted fruit trees need special cuts to grow into their best harvests possible. 

It’s a great idea to keep notes on your fruit trees and all the maintenance you do on them. Whether it’s a matter of yields, fertilizer, or water schedule, you can refer to your last year’s records to get a better insight on how to help your tree flourish. This way, your young trees will have the best possible care because you’ll know exactly what’s going on.

However, when it comes to removing diseased branches, dead branches, broken branches, branches growing downward, or very small branches that you don’t want to encourage to grow, it’s usually fine to prune these at any time of the year.

Age and Growth Cycle

Every tree has a natural shape and with proper pruning and trimming, you can help it reach its full potential. 

If you have a young tree, you have a great opportunity to help guide that tree’s future growth. When you prune branches with the right pruning techniques, you can foster your tree into its natural potential and encourage full, new, abundant growth for many years to come.

Here’s more on when to prune, or trim a number of common woody trees and ornamentals.

When Should You Hire A Professional?

It’s always a good idea to work with a professional tree service when doing work like this. 

If it’s not a fit for your ability, tool-set, or skill-set it’s probably a good idea to reach out to our team of tree professionals and see how we can help. Let us take care of the work for you.

Bottom line: Always work with trained, licensed, insured, and bonded professionals (with the correct equipment).

Also, a certified arborist or tree-service professional will be able to give you qualified advice on new growth, your routine tree trimming (so you can take charge of some maintenance if you’d like to), insect infestation, possible disease, or rodent/bird concerns.

If power lines are a part of your equation, call your local service providers first and foremost. They will have their own in-house tree service. Never even approach trees tangled in power lines, there’s no reason to.

If you’d like some more insights on how your tree care can be best realized and then managed, reach out to us today. We’d be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Meet Your Tree Expert

Codey Stout

Codey Stout is the operations manager for Tree Triage and has years of experience removing trees. His expertise has been featured in publications like Yahoo, The Family Handyman, Homes & Gardens, and many more. The only thing Codey likes doing more than removing intrusive trees, is removing unsightly stumps.
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