(How To) Prune Away A Troublesome Tree Limb

AS A GARDEN COACH, ONE OF THE REQUESTS I HEAR MOST OFTEN from clients is, “Can you teach me how to prune my overgrown tree/shrub/rose bush/hedge/etc.?” Pruning seems to be a black hole of gardening knowledge, and one that intimidates many gardening beginners. Part of the problem appears to be this:

Figure 1. A confusing guide to basic pruning

Figure 1. A really confusing guide to basic pruning.

It reminds me of a high school math exam upon which I’m about to score very, very poorly. We’ve got angles AB and CX, hardwoods and conifers, and branch collars and bark ridges going in every direction. And this was published by the Arbor Day Foundation, fer cryin’ out loud! Could they make this any more confusing for the tree-loving American public? I think not. Tree companies love illustrations like this precisely because it makes the process look difficult and therefore, expensive.

(It’s not that the Arbor Day guide is wrong, but it’s overkill for the average home gardener.)

LET'S SAY YOU* WANT TO REMOVE A DAMAGED LIMB from, say, your crabapple tree. Standing beside you, I'd provide the following SIMPLIFIED explanation of how to remove a tree branch.

So what’s the deal with making three cuts? It has to do with gravity. A branch often supports a fair amount of weight. As we cut through it, it may suddenly “give away” and break off, tearing off a large strip of bark below it at the same time. The FIRST cut is through the bark under the limb you’re removing. The SECOND cut them removes the branch. Presto – you’ve now removed the weight of the branch. Cuts one and two don’t need to be pretty.

Figure 2. Basic tree pruning

Figure 2. Basic pruning. (via MSU Extension Service)

The THIRD cut is the important one to make correctly. If you look closely, most trees will show you exactly where to cut off the branch: there’s a slight ridge of raised bark where the branch meets the trunk. The trick is to find that ridge and cut just to the outside, away from the trunk. Do not cut off the branch “flush” with the trunk, or leave a long stub. The tree needs the smallest bit of stub to heal up and callous over. (As my arboriculture instructor said, “Just enough to hang your hat.) The cut line in Figure 2 looks a little too vertical to my eye, but the general information is presented correctly.

Trees, shrubs, hedges, you name it: I LOVE PRUNING. It’s one of the most satisfying jobs in the garden and you get to enjoy the results immediately and into the future. A significant part of my late winter and late summer business as a Garden Coach is pruning high-value trees and shrubs under 10 feet tall, or teaching others how to do it. Call me if you’d like a pruning lesson!

*Your mileage may vary, depending on YOU. Use common sense about your own skills and tools. Protect your hands, eyeballs, and other body parts you’re fond of. Hire a professional (like me!) if necessary.

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