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Ultimate Guide to Tree Pruning

Looking for the best methods and tips for tree pruning? Our guide outlines best pruning practices and how this maintenance affects the health of your trees.

Author Image Written by Brenda Woods Updated 03/28/2024

To maintain the look and structural integrity of your landscape trees, it’s important to conduct routine maintenance like tree pruning. However, this task isn’t as simple as simply sawing limbs off of your trees. Proper pruning requires choosing the correct branches to cut for optimal growth, aesthetic appeal, and overall tree health.

To help homeowners better understand this routine procedure, we’ve outlined the benefits of tree pruning, how to safely prune your trees, and what to look for in a professional service. Our guide to tree pruning covers each step of the process, the tools you’ll need, safety precautions, and your options for ​​professional tree care.

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In the video below, This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook shows the proper way to prune a branch without damaging the tree.

It’s important to identify problem areas within the tree structure before deciding to prune branches. Some of the most common reasons for pruning include removing dead branches, increasing light and air exposure, managing flower or fruit production, and providing proper clearance.

Dead Branch Removal

It’s vital to remove dead or decaying tree branches to decrease the risk of falling limbs. As an additional benefit, removing dead branches will improve a tree’s overall look. You can identify dead branches by their dry exterior and brown inner color. Pruning these away helps direct nutrients to healthy tree branches while reducing the risk of pests and diseases infiltrating the tree’s structure.

Increased Light and Air Exposure

Pruning a mature tree thins it out by removing old branches, making room for direct sunlight and airflow to hit growing foliage. Sunlight is particularly important in creating a tree’s distinct crown shape. When old branches block out air and sun, a tree is vulnerable to external stressors that can impact the tree’s overall health and shape.

Improved Fruit or Flower Production

If your lawn is full of fruit trees or flowering shrubbery, tree pruning is an essential part of maintaining its yield and bloom or fruit quality. Pruning helps control the size of the tree while ensuring proper nutrients are directed to growing branches. Additionally, if you need to pick the fruit from your trees, pruning gives you easy access to ripe fruit.

Proper Clearance

If your branches are encroaching on your home or its surrounding area, pruning helps ensure there’s a safe distance between the tree and your roof, power lines, or other vulnerable areas. Maintaining the proper clearance between your home and surrounding structures is important to avoid electrical hazards, damage to your home’s exterior, and potential debris during storms.

How to Prune a Tree

While cutting limbs seems simple, following proper tree pruning processes will help ensure proper tree health. Likewise, adhering to these steps will decrease your risk while removing large branches. Follow the steps below for the ideal tree pruning technique.

  1. Cut the branch’s underside. Start your cut on the underside of the branch about a foot and half from its base. You should make your pruning cuts at a 45-degree angle. Once you reach the midway point, stop sawing.
  2. Move to the branch’s top side. Start about an inch further from your first cut and continue down until the branch breaks free. Again, this second cut should make a 45-degree angle to prevent water from collecting and harboring harmful diseases.
  3. Find the trunk’s branch collar. After making the final cut, follow the stub down until you see a slight swelling covered in rough bark. This is the branch collar, which should be cut at a 45-degree angle to encourage proper healing.

Tools Required for Tree Pruning

Pruning your landscape trees may require specialized tools. The tools you need vary based on the size of the branch you’re cutting and the level of effort you’re willing to exert. Here are tools you may need and when they’re commonly used:

Hand shears: Used for small branches up to one-quarter inch in diameter, they look like scissors and are great for pruning small trees, plants, and shrubs
Lopping shears: Excellent for pruning medium branches that are up to 1.5 inches in diameter, most loppers come with adjustable handles that allow you to cut more difficult branches
Pruning saws: Heavy-duty shears for cutting large branches more than 1.5 inches in diameter; they look like long, thin carpenter saws
Pole pruners: Also known as pole saws, these pruners help homeowners reach thick, out-of-reach branches
Chainsaws: Electric or gas power tools with enough power to prune branches with minimal effort

Tree Pruning Safety Tips

Tree pruning is demanding, and should only be done by those willing to climb a ladder, use saws or shears, and assess which branches need maintenance. Here are some warnings you should consider before taking on pruning by yourself:

  • Wear appropriate protective equipment, including safety glasses and gloves, to protect yourself from falling debris.
  • Avoid pruning during the tree’s growing season, which is between spring and late summer. Overzealous pruning can remove the leaves that give the tree necessary nutrients.
  • Use sharp tools. Dull saws and pruning shears can cause excessive bark damage and create harmful rips that expose the tree to pests.
  • Inspect the branch for signs of bees, wasps, or other animal hazards before climbing a ladder.
  • Don’t cut the entire top off of your tree. This causes improper balance and increases the risk of it falling.

Professional Tree Pruning

If you’re unsure where to prune your tree or need to trim a branch near a sensitive area such as a powerline or roof, it may be worthwhile to contact a professional. This is also a good option for homeowners who would prefer not to take the risk of maintaining large or mature trees. Professional tree services are equipped with the proper pruning tools and knowledge to conduct the maintenance your trees need without damaging your home or its surroundings.


Tree pruning is an essential part of maintaining a healthy and aesthetically pleasing landscape. It’s important to stay on top of tree maintenance to prevent lasting structural damage and encourage proper growth. To protect power lines, new growth on the tree, and yourself from falling limbs, be sure to regularly complete the pruning process.

However, if you think a job is beyond your level of expertise, we recommend contacting a landscaping professional like SavATree. Their network of expert arborists can tackle a variety of tree, shrub, and lawn care needs, including pruning, weeding, tree removal, and more. Calling a professional for pruning can take the difficulty and risk out of routine tree care.

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FAQ About Tree Pruning

What is the best time to cut back a tree?

The best time to cut back a tree is between late fall and early spring when most are in a dormant season and free from fruit or flowers.

What is the difference between trimming and pruning a tree?

The difference between trimming and pruning a tree is that pruning removes unnecessary and potentially dangerous branches while trimming often shapes the tree into a specific design. Pruning removes unwanted growth on a tree, while tree trimming promotes healthy new growth.

What are the benefits of pruning a tree?

There are many benefits of pruning your tree, regardless of the species or shape. Top benefits  include:

  • Making room for new growth
  • Protecting your property from damage
  • Promoting fruit or flowering
  • Deterring pest infestation or disease
  • Improving the tree’s appearance
  • Avoiding accidents due to falling limbs
  • Allowing adequate air circulation and sunlight for lower branches

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