A Good Time to Prune

The time period from mid-March to mid-April is especially good for pruning trees.  With no leaves on the trees, it is much easier to evaluate the structure of the tree, choosing weakly attached branches for removal and leaving strongly attached branches to become the permanent framework.  The next month is also a good time for pruning Oaks and Elms, since there is a far lower chance of infection of the pruning cuts to cause Oak Wilt and Dutch Elm disease, than during the warm season from may through mid-October. 

Last April in my Blog Post, I discussed tree pruning — rather than re-writing another post – I am bringing it back this year.  It is so relevant and after a long winter, everyone is anxious to get outside and get something done and pruning your trees might be on your list.  The following is my blog post from April 15th of last year.

During late winter and early spring yards and gardens can often look their worst.  The grass is brown and sometimes damaged by winter stress, pets, de-icing products leaking off sidewalks, driveways and streets, snow plows, squirrels, and even foot traffic.  The tops of perennials that may have provided some winter interest are now tired and faded.  Interesting shrubs, vines and ornamental trees such as Winterberry, Bittersweet, High bush Cranberry, Mtn. Ash and certain flowering crabs that displayed beautiful red fruits all winter long now have finally faded.  Certain evergreen trees and shrubs show ugly browning foliage due to winter burn.

It’s time to cleanup and prepare your landscape for the explosion of spring growth.  Spot seeding or over-seeding of the lawn, removing the spent tops of perennials, picking up twigs and branches and getting ready to plant potatoes and onions are things most of us put on our to-do lists in early to mid-April.  Pre-season pruning of shrubs is another task that we usually think of before new growth starts.

There is one landscape chore that otherwise diligent property owners seem to consistently forget, avoid or kid themselves they can ignore.  People mow their grass, pull weeds, plant flowers, prune shrubs, build patios, retaining walls, firepits and ponds and completely miss one important part of landscape maintenance.

It’s tree pruning.  Plain old tree pruning.  Once every year or two, prune your trees.   On fairly new trees that have been in the landscape ten years or less, it’s fairly easy tree pruning that so often gets left undone.  Until it’s too late!

I see the unfortunate results of delay in tree pruning everywhere I go.  It is common – very common – to see properties that the owners keep in immaculate condition except for good and timely tree pruning.  The sad thing is that when tree pruning is delayed too long, it may not be possible to get tree structure that is as good as trees that get pruned regularly from an early age.

 If you are unsure about tree pruning consult an experience nursery professional or arborist or read books and pamphlets and research pruning on the internet and then go at it. 

By pruning yourself every one to two years during the first ten years you have the trees, and later when the tree is large enough to be beyond your safe reach, hiring the professional arborists or tree service to prune every three to five years, you will likely have a tree of great stature, beauty and durability.

 On ornamental trees such as Flowering Crabs, Lilacs, Magnolia, Plum, Cherry and Mountain Ash that have mature heights of 25 feet or less, people sometimes decide to leave low branches on the tree between three and six feet above the ground.  If the ornamental tree is a real dwarf with a mature size of ten feet or less, these low branches can be an integral part of the purpose of having a dwarf tree:  small size and various kinds of unusual structure such as clumps, topiary, sphere on a stick, and low, horizontal or undulating lines.  Prune these trees with a sense of creative freedom and adventure. 

It is also just fine to prune ornamental trees that mature at 15-30 feet, so that it they have a higher canopy with the first branches at 7-12 feet.  While you don’t see these somewhat higher tree canopies as often on ornamental trees, there is nothing wrong with this approach. It allows people to walk freely underneath and sunlight to penetrate enough to keep grass growing nicely.

For shade trees, it is advisable to prune for higher canopies unless you have a specific reason to leave lots of low branches on your tree.  You may want to have a great climbing tree for your children or grandchildren, or feel you absolutely need the low level branches for screening.  If this is your decision, begin planning for some type of deep shade landscaping below the tree, since the canopy of a shade tree with branches 3-6 feet off the ground will allow only a very limited group of plants to survive in the heavy shade.

In most cases, when shade trees get to be 18″ to 48″ in diameter or more, the first branches ought to be at ten feet to twenty feet or more above ground level.  This allows for some sunlight penetration to ground level and keeps branches from touching vehicles and roof lines.  Over the years, prune out the steeply angled branches and branches rubbing on each other.  Keep branches that are more horizontal or angled up to 45 degrees to 55 degrees.  The lower angled branches are stronger. 

In summary – prune early and often during the first ten years of the life of your tree.  After that, hire professionals every 3-5 years to safely continue the pruning process.  In this way, you will have  beautiful, strong, long lived trees.