Ashleigh Smith + photo

Ashleigh Smith

Jan 8
6 min read
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Pruning fruit trees
Written By Lara Wadsworth

Almost every yard in America has some kind of woody perennial in its landscape. Woody perennials do well with being pruned periodically. But, with so many different shrubs, ornamental trees, and more, it can be daunting to know how and when to prune. Luckily, there are a few rules that almost all woody shrubs and trees follow when it comes to pruning for a nice appearance and good health.

Why Is Pruning Important?

Improves Plant Health

Pruning serves a few purposes. First, it gets rid of dead branches that might cause problems for the plant. Leaving dead or damaged branches on a tree or shrub can increase the likelihood of disease entering the plant’s system. By removing the dead branches first, you get the most pressing stressors for your plant out of the way. Sometimes, that’s all you need to do!

pruning a dead branch with tree loppers

Maintains An Attractive Appearance

Pruning also improves the overall appearance of a plant. You can shape them to fit a specific design goal, or just to look appear cleaner. This is often the most fun and creative part. For small shrubs, spheres, cubes, and rectangles are very popular. For trees, some want a low and spread-out appearance, while others prefer a more formal, tall, and tight look. And don’t forget the topiaries! It is easy to forget that there are no real rules for how an ornamental plant should look. As long as it is healthy, you can do what you want!

Direct New Growth

Lastly, pruning can encourage a more full and overall healthier plant. Pruning will trigger your shrub to branch more and fill in any holes or dead spots with lush, new growth the following growing season. When you snip off one branch, this stimulates the growing hormones to develop many more! If your bush has a bare spot, try lightly pruning the tips of some of the branches in that area. Over time, it will fill in.

When Should You Prune Trees and Shrubs?

The best time of year to prune any plant is when they are dormant during the late winter season (January - Early March). When a plant is dormant, it keeps its resources in its roots. As it comes out of dormancy, it redistributes those resources into the branches above for new growth. Pruning during dormancy limits the waste of the plant’s resources being spent on branches that are just going to be cut off. Instead, it will push those resources to the remaining healthy branches and encourage stronger growth and fruit development.

How to Prune Fruit Trees and Other Woody Plants

Pruning does not need to be a daunting task. There are a few rules for pruning any woody plant that make it a simple and easy process. For pruning small shrubs and trees, you only need three tools: hand pruners, loppers, and a hand saw. It is best to leave pruning large trees to professional arborists who have the tools and training to do it safely.

Hand Pruners - Hand pruners are used for quickly cutting branches that are around a pencil’s width or smaller.

Loppers - Loppers are used for branches around a half-inch wide. Anything larger than that, and the lopers will likely struggle to cut through the wood. Larger branches should be left for the hand saw.

Hand Saw - To cut branches with a hand saw, it is best to make three separate cuts to protect the plant. Follow these steps as shown in the diagram. Never cut into the branch collar or ridge.

True Leaf Market Tree Pruning Diagram

Guide to Pruning

When cutting through large branches be sure to utilize an undercut to prevent excessive damage due to top-heavy branches. An undercut goes partially through the bottom of the large branch being removed just a few inches from where you want the final cut to be made. After making this protective cut, make your overcut to remove the bulk of the problematic branch. Some tearing may occur as this cut is being made, however it will quickly be interupted by the protective undercut. A final cut can then be made safely and in a controlled manner for a smooth finish at the desired location.

  • Cut 1 - Make an undercut on the bottom of the branch to protect from undesired tearing. Tearing can put your tree at risk of disease and pest dammage. This cut should go partially through the branch.
  • Cut 2 - Make an overcut on the outer side from where you made an undercut. Here you will be removing most of the problematic branch.
  • Cut 3 - To create a clean finish make the final cut where you want the pruning finalized. Just be sure to avoid the branch collar and ridge. This is were the tree keeps important growth hormones that trigger growth, healing, and prevent decay.

Priority 1 - Remove any dead, diseased, or dying branches. It is best to cut into healthy wood at least 6 inches past the dead or diseased portion.

Priority 2 - Remove any branches that are rubbing against another branch or may cause future damage.

Priority 3 - Continue to prune for shaping and utilitarian purposes.

The Rule of Thirds

Assess the pruning process after each step, if you have already removed 1/3rd of the plant or more, stop here and wait for the next dormancy period. Try to avoid pruning off more than 1/3rd of the plant in one year. This allows the plant to recover more easily and remain strong from season to season.

Lara Wadsworth, True Leaf Market Writer

I am a native of Southwestern Michigan, where I also reside, and I love all things plants! I got a Bachelor's Degree in Horticulture and found the first work-from-home job I could get. Now, I spend my days writing for TLM, playing with my dog, eating delicious food with my husband, and plotting my next landscape or gardening move. I believe everyone should get down and dirty in the soil now and then. Happy Gardening!

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Thanks Ashleigh! This was so clear and helpful. I love reading the articles at True Leaf. They are full of knowledge and encouragement.

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Climbing training is essential for arborists to perform their jobs safely, efficiently, and effectively, benefiting both tree care professionals and the environments they work in.

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