Simple Guide to Pruning Trees and Shrubs

Simple Guide to Pruning Trees and Shrubs


Trees and shrubs add natural beauty to a home. However, achieving an uplifting and breathtaking utopia requires shrub and tree trimming. Taking a few minutes to prune a tree can add more class and beauty to your yard. All the same, pruning is one of the most neglected tasks in homes. The reason this is the case is that most people do not have the slightest clue on pruning how to. Others think hiring a professional is expensive. Still, most people are afraid of butchering their plants. This does not have to be the case. This post takes a look at how to prune tree branches. Let’s get started.

How to Prune Small Flowering Trees

While pruning is crucial, you must avoid pruning newly planted or young trees. This is because for a plant to produce enough food needed to grow healthy roots, it needs as many leaves as possible. When tree pruning young trees, your goal should only be removing leaves and branches that are injured, broken or dead. Branches that rub or cross each other can also be removed. Basic tree pruning dictates that you prune back to a healthy branch or stem. You should never leave stubs. Doing this will eliminate the hiding places for pests and diseases. Your tree will also look much better.

You must never cut the plant’s leader. This is the topmost part of a growing tree. It is vital for letting a tree develop a natural form. So, how do I know which branch to prune? If you are wondering about this, here is what you should prune from a tree:

  • Suckers that are growing from the base of the trunk or the roots
  • Limbs that are sagging or growing close to the ground
  • Branches forming an acute angle with the tree trunk
  • Dead, broken or diseased limbs
  • Water sprouts that are shooting up from the main ‘scaffold’ branches
  • Branches that are rubbing or crossing against each other
  • Branches that are growing parallel to or that are too close to each other
  • Limbs that are competing with the central leader of the tree

You should start shaping your young tree after it is a couple of years old. Shaping must be done gradually over the course of a few years to reduce flowering and foliage. Make sure the branches of the tree are adequately spaced up the trunk and that they are spiralling perfectly around the trunk. Any easy pruning guide will tell you not to prune more than one-fourth of the total leaf area of a tree in a year. For you to create a clearance beneath the tree or to create a tree crown, remove the lowest branches. Your focus needs to be on branches that are too close together or the ones joining the trunk at narrow angles (less than 45 degrees). Such branches will be loosely attached to the trunk and will break very easily. They can be broken by the wind or the weight of ice and snow.

How to Remove a Whole Branch

At times in tree and shrub pruning, you may need to remove entire tree branches. So, what is the best tree-pruning method? The answer is to cut the branch close to its collar. The collar is the swollen ring of bark where the branch meets the trunk or stem. Cut as close to the collar but do not cut the stem or trunk. For branches that are thicker than an inch in diameter, take care not to strip or tear the bark. You can avoid this by cutting such branches using a pruning saw as well as the three-cut method. When pruned properly, the cut will heal naturally and quickly without damaging the tree.

Here is the three-cut method

  • Using a pruning saw, cut about a quarter of the way through the branch on the bottom of the limb between 6 to 12 inches from the tree trunk.
  • Move to the top of the limb and cut about an inch beyond your first cut. Keep in mind that the branch might snap before you finish cutting due to the branch’s weight. Support the branch to ensure a clean cut.
  • Cut the short remaining stub completely from top to bottom. The cut should be beyond the branch collar.

General pruning guidelines dictate that you remove the fast-growing stems. These are known as suckers. They grow from the roots or the base of the tree trunk. They are often attached weakly. Remove the weakly attached shoots known as water sprouts that tend to grow straight up from the branches or trunk.

You only need to prune a tree occasionally. The goal is to maintain their appearance and structure. You must never cut the top of the tree’s canopy in order to reduce its size. Doing this will make the branches less attractive and prone to pests and weak growth.

Pruning Conifers

Deciduous and evergreen plants require periodic pruning throughout the growing season. The growing season starts in spring. How you prune them will depend on the type of plant you are dealing with. There are two types of needle-leafed evergreens: random branching and whorled branching. Each type calls for a different pruning technique.

Random-branching patterns

This category includes juniper, yew, hemlock and arborvitae. These evergreens should be pruned using the same technique you use when pruning shrubs or flowering trees. Heading cuts encourage dense growth. To maintain the shape of the tree, you need thinning cuts that are made closer to the trunk. Keep in mind that heading cuts cause new branches to sprout if the remaining branches have needles still growing on them.

Whorled-branching evergreens

These include pine, fir and spruce. They have pale growth buds known as candles. The buds develop in spring at the tip of the branches. When pruning these, you should use the forefinger and thumb to remove the new growths while they are still soft. Thinning cuts are not needed for whorled-branching conifers. This is because they don’t produce new growth but rather a dead snag. This is apart from the spruce tree, which tends to have side buds that sprout if they are trimmed to the growth of the previous year.

Pruning Flowering Shrubs

When pruning shrubs, it is paramount to maintain the plant’s natural shape. This is achieved by cutting off individual branches. If you want your shrubs to be bushier and fuller, you should lightly prune them. This can be achieved using hand pruners. Use them to trim long, unbranched stems. They should be cut above healthy buds. This type of shrub pruning is known as heading. It encourages the development of lower-side branches. It also enhances the natural form of a shrub.

When pruning shrubs, keep in mind that a new branch will sprout in the direction of the bud. Keep this in mind when choosing a bud tip to cut. You also need to time pruning to avoid the disruption of flowering.

The best advice on how to prune shrubs is to thin the old, rubbing, weak or wayward branches from the point where they are merging with other branches. Doing so helps open the middle of a plant to get more sunlight, which will, in turn, stimulate the growth of new branches, increase flowering and keep the interior branches healthy.

Fixing Old and Neglected Shrubs

A comprehensive three-year program of thinning cuts, known as renewal or renovation pruning may be necessary for older shrubs that have turned into a tangle of fruitless stems. On shrubs like lilac, viburnum, forsythia, and dogwood with many branches that emerge from the base, gently prune out all the old stems while leaving the fresh, flower-producing growth alone. The old, uninteresting growth will eventually be totally replaced by new, flower-producing stems.

Using harsh pruning may be more appropriate for neglected shrubs. Most evergreen shrubs that react well to rejuvenation pruning, as well as a few broadleaf evergreens like privet, may tolerate harsh pruning. During the plant’s winter dormancy, trim all stems with loppers and a pruning saw to a distance of one inch from the ground. The plants will soon grow new shoots from the base in the spring. Naturally, this method will give you little to look at as you wait for fresh growth.

What is the Best Time to Prune Trees and Shrubs?

When should you cut back trees and shrubs? First, note that there is pruning that can be done at any time. This is more so when removing dead, damaged, weak or crossing branches. However, you should note that when timed poorly, pruning can stunt flower and foliage production or simply injure the plant. The worst time to prune trees is in the fall and early winter. To keep your plants healthy, three pruning seasons are recommended.

Late Winter or Early Spring

If you have summer-flowering plants, late winter and early spring are the best times to prune them. This is a time when these plants are dormant. They have bare limbs that make it easy for you to see the structure of the plant. The spring flush will heal the wounds quickly. Random-branching conifers should be pruned after you see new growth.

Late Spring or Early Summer

Plants that flower in spring should be pruned as soon as the blossoms fade. This is because they produce flowers on the old growth only. Pruning these plants immediately after they bloom will reduce flower production the following year.


Midsummer is the best time to prune the ‘bleeding’ trees. These are trees that have extra heavy spring sap flow. Midsummer is when their leaves are fully developed. The main trees in this category are Birch, Elm, Yellowwood, Maple and Dogwood.

Choosing a Pruning Tool

You cannot do all your pruning by hand – you need specialized tools. A variety of pruning tools are available, and each has a unique purpose. Here are a few tips for choosing the tool that is right for the task.

Hand pruners

After the trowel, these are a gardener’s favourite. They are not only small but also lightweight. They are also adequately sharp to cut small stems that get in the way. They are used for making precise cuts on soft and small stems as well as branches.

Under the hand pruners category, there are two types of pruners: bypass and anvil. The bypass pruners are distinguished by their overlapping blades. The anvil pruners feature one blade pressing against an even edge. Anvil pruners tend to crush stems rather than cut them cleanly. This can expose your plants to pests and diseases. Bypass pruners are thus the best option.


When it comes to branches and steps that are more than a quarter inch in diameter, you will need loppers. These are sizable, heavy-duty pruners that feature long handles for added leverage. They are suited for cutting roots, stems and branches.

Pruning saws

A pruning saw has a curved blade. They are ideal for cutting branches that the loppers cannot cut. They are suited for cutting large shrubs or removing thick branches.

Hedge shears

These resemble giant scissors. They are perfect for sculpting evergreen hedges as well as topiary. They make broad cuts. They are not ideal for pruning other trees and shrubs.

Hedge trimmers

Motorized hedge trimmers are suited for shaping wide areas of evergreen shrubs and hedges. They excel where traditional shears fail.

Basic tree pruning promotes plant health. It also helps fend off pests. If you need more information on where to cut, when to prune, the best type of pruning and anything along these lines, do not hesitate to seek expert help. At Al Miley & Associates, we are happy to answer any questions and offer expert help on tree and shrub pruning. The company is fully insured, provides WSIB coverage and works with approved contractors to offer the best pruning services at the most competitive rates. Get in touch now on 416-749-3723.