Magazine article Sunset

How to Prune a Tree.Properly

Magazine article Sunset

How to Prune a Tree.Properly

Article excerpt

Three steps to a better-looking (and healthier) tree: make big cuts, make small cuts, then thin

A healthy, well-shaped tree is a valuable asset to your landscape. Besides adding beauty to your garden and neighborhood and providing shade on hot summer days, it can also add thousands of dollars of equity to your property.

To maintain a tree's health, you need to prune its canopy periodically. Routine pruning will keep the tree shapely and free of dead and dying branches, which can invite disease; it will also prevent wind damage.

Pruning isn't complicated, but it may take a little practice to develop an eye for good tree shape and form. It's best to tackle only small to medium-size trees yourself and leave the large trees for arborists. If you're wary of making any cuts at all and prefer to deal with an arborist, it's still useful to learn something about the pruning process. A little knowledge will help you ask the right questions and determine whether your arborist is qualified to do the job.

The best time to prune trees is winter (early spring in cold climates), when they're dormant.


Start with the proper ladder, suggests arborist Kevin Raftery of Palo Alto, who helped us prune the hawthorn tree shown on these pages. "The closer you can get to what you're cutting, the less strain on your body. Orchard ladders, which have three legs, are best (you can rent one); stepladders, which have four legs, can tip over. Make sure the ladder is planted firmly on solid ground." You may need to actually climb into the tree to make some outof-reach pruning cuts.

To make cuts efficiently, Raftery uses a variety of tools: Japanese handsaw, pole pruner, loppers, and pruning shears. Pole pruners are especially useful when you're working among thorny branches. Loppers work well on thornless trees.

To save energy on a big job, Raftery sometimes uses a chain saw. "But you have to be very careful not to injure nearby branches and yourself," he says.

Gardeners working at home may not have many tools on hand, but you can get by with just a handsaw and pruning shears. You may want to rent or borrow a pole pruner to reach high branches.

One last critical piece of equipment, says Raftery, is a pair of sunglasses: "They help keep the dust out of your eyes and protect them from glare."


Before you cut anything, stand back and look at the tree. Identify the principal framework (main branches) that you'll probably want to keep. …

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