Tips for Your Tree and Bush Trimming and Pruning

By Staff
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Tips for Your Tree and Bush Trimming and Pruning

Sponsored by ECHO
March 2018

The trimming and pruning of trees, shrubs and bushes is one of the most beneficial but often one of the most neglected of tasks that property owners face every year. The reasons for neglecting this necessary maintenance are many, but in a lot of cases it stems from a lack of knowledge of when and how to tackle those pruning and trimming jobs. 

Whether its evergreens, deciduous trees, fruit trees, ornamental bushes – or a combination of all of them – the benefits of pruning include developing and maintaining proper growth, increasing production of fruit or flowers and the ongoing maintenance of mature trees and bushes. Learning the basic components of proper pruning and trimming may help you overcome some of the concerns you may have. Here are some tips to get you started.

When to Prune

Late winter and early spring is a good time for most of your pruning and trimming jobs. If you prune before spring growth begins you will minimize the damage that may occur from the trimming process and you will also have a good unobscured view of the plants’ growth and branch structure.

Some deciduous trees like maples and birch tend to bleed sap more freely in the early spring, but this generally does not hurt the tree and stops fairly quickly. If you want to avoid the flowing sap when pruning these trees, you may wait to prune them in late spring or early summer after leaves have fully expanded.

Pine and evergreen trees as well as evergreen shrubs also respond well to dormant late winter/early spring pruning. Most fruit trees and fruit vines such as grapes also are best pruned in late February through April depending on your geographical location. Of course dead, diseased or damaged limbs can and should be pruned anytime of the year.

What to Prune

There is an old adage in the landscaping business that goes something like this: “If you prune a tree or a bush, you know you’ve done a good job if no one notices.” In other words, slow down and only make cuts that are necessary to accomplish your pruning goals. And what are some of the goals of pruning? According to the University of Minnesota Extension Service, (, you should keep in mind the following when pruning; prune to promote plant health, prune to maintain plants for their intended purposes, prune to improve appearance, and prune to protect people and property.

Pruning is a process that should start from the time you first plant your trees. The type of pruning that young or newly planted trees receive is really best described as “training” the trees’ growth. This training is done by making very selective and minor pruning of branches that would impede proper development and growth.

Examples of the type of pruning that young and developing trees may receive include minor shaping of the tree but be careful not to trim the leader, which is the dominate growth limb at the top of the tree. Even in young trees, it’s important to remove branches that grow back in the direction of the center of the tree and to remove braches that are very close to each other. Also, on certain trees like evergreens and fruit trees, if you have multiple leaders, it is good practice to select one leader and remove the other competing branches. 

Additional cuts or pruning to make on trees include cutting the suckers – small growth coming up from the base of the tree – and waterspouts, which are best described as growths that shoot straight up from the lateral growth limbs. Also, you will want to trim any branches that grow too close to the ground or limbs that grow at a sharp angle out from the trunk of the tree. As a general rule of thumb, you shouldn’t prune more than a quarter of the tree’s leaf area in a single year after it has become established. Newly planted trees require as many leaves as possible to sustain good root development 

On established larger trees, you may want to consult an arborist or tree removal specialist if you feel that you will need extensive pruning to rehabilitate or remove a large part of the tree. Depending on your confidence and skill set, the same type of pruning mentioned for developing trees may be used.

Bushes and shrubs should be pruned very lightly to stimulate fuller growth. Using hand pruners, look for the long unbranched stems and make cuts near a healthy bud. These type of cuts are called heading cuts and they help to produce side branches that will fill out the shrub or bush’s natural form. As the plant develops you will need to look for and prune out weak, dead, diseased, or branches rubbing on each other. You will need to continue to prune throughout the plant’s life cycle to maintain the growth and aesthetics you desire. 

Making the Cut

To cut back a branch or twig, you should cut back to a side branch or make the cut above the closest bud. Try to stay about a quarter of an inch above the bud with your cut. To get the correct growth direction of the branch you are pruning, make your cut above the bud facing the outside or the direction you want the new branch to grow.

When you are cutting large branches you should think in terms of three or four cuts instead of one cut to remove the limb. In order to prevent tearing the bark off the tree when cutting the limb, make your first cut from the underside of the branch about 18 – 20 inches from the trunk. Cut about one-third to half way through the limb and then make your second cut an inch or so further out on the limb from the top side of the limb until the branch breaks free. You will then cut the “stub” left from the initial cut slightly ahead of the branch collar, which is located at the base of the stem. Keeping the collar intact helps the wound seal more effectively. 

Tools for the Job

Tackling those pruning jobs can be quite daunting the first time around, but equipping yourself with the proper trimming tools and equipment can be a great first step in doing the job correctly. There are a variety of tools available to make trimming more effective and productive. Chainsaws, pole saws, pruner and lopper shears, are used at various times and for certain situations when trimming trees and bushes throughout their growing lifetime. Remember when operating overhead with power equipment, it’s always best to wear eye protection and ideally a helmet with eye shield. Here are a few commonly used trimming tools:



If you are planning on trimming a lot of trees with established larger limbs, you may consider purchasing a chainsaw. Chainsaws are typically powered by either a gas- or battery-powered engine that is attached to a bar on the saw, which holds a “chain” that revolves around the bar and cuts the limb. 

There are many sizes of chainsaws but for light trimming of trees a small- to medium-size bar in the 12 – 16 inch length is a good choice. They are typically lighter in weight and when matched with good engine can be very efficient for day-to-day use. Also, if you feel your use of the chainsaw will be fairly limited, you may want to consider the newer lithium-ion battery saws that are lighter and require virtually no engine maintenance.

Pole Saws

Pole saws, as their name implies, are trimming saws that have long or extended handles attached to the cutting blade. Pole saws can be found in either manual or powered versions. The manual saws are operated by pulling the saw on the back stroke across the limb. They work quite well on small- to medium-sized limbs but can be a little tiring for extended use.

Powered pole saws are gas- or battery-driven with a chainsaw-type bar and chain attached to the pole shaft. Powered pole saws are a good choice if you will be doing a lot of trimming or if you will be dealing with larger-diameter limbs that require you to reach above your head or would require you to climb a ladder to reach the limb you need to trim.


Pruners and lopper shears are usually used when doing light trimming of things like shrubs, hedges, vines, and fruit or ornamental trees that are either newly planted or existing growth. 

Bypass pruners and lopper shears are used for just about any type of trimming or pruning of bushes and trees. Most shears are spring-loaded, which allows for one-handed use and they are used for trimming living wood. Bypass pruning shears are typically used for cutting living wood and lopper shears are designed to cut larger material than pruners. Some lopper shears can cut branches up to 1½ inches in diameter and are used for secondary cuts or to cut dead wood on the tree.

Good maintenance of your trimming equipment through proper cleaning and oiling after each use is a good practice. Also, if you purchase good-quality tools, you are more apt to get extended years of use out of your equipment if you follow suggested maintenance schedules. 

University of Minnesota Extension:
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach:
University of Vermont Extension: