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How To Trim Trees Correctly – Keep Your Trees Beautiful

Today you decided to trim your tree! But of course the burning question, how to trim trees correctly? You certainly don’t want to permanently damage your beautiful trees by making bad cuts or cutting branches that should not be cut. Making random cuts and stripping or tearing bark from the tree trunk is detrimental to the health of the tree!

Tips on how to trim trees correctly:

  • Make an undercut on the bottom of the branch to prevent the bark from stripping off the tree trunk.
  • Remove lower limbs for more clearance and for more sunshine beneath the tree to promote thicker grass.
  • Cut away small limbs or twigs from the middle of the tree, any dead limbs you find can also be removed.
  • Limbs that are being removed are cut at the branch collar, the bulge where a tree and branch connect.
  • Usually 20% to 30% of the tree can be reduced without harming the tree when doing crown reduction.
  • The best time to trim a tree is autumn or winter when the growing season is over, although they can be trimmed year round.
  • And last but certainly not least, you need a sharp tool to make clean and smooth cuts to promote faster healing, like a chainsaw, hand saw, loppers, or hand pruner.

I want to share some tips and advice I have learned over the last 15+ years cutting down and pruning trees! I love my job, it allows me to work with my family, and I want to share useful information with others so they are able to prune and maintain their own trees correctly!


Tools And Equipment You May Need

One of the first things you need to know about how to trim trees correctly is a tool to cut the branches. This cutting tool depends on your tree size or the thickness of the branches you are planning to cut. You will be able to find any tool you need at Amazon.

A chainsaw is the most popular and generally the tool most people will be using. They are fast and powerful, easily able to cut through large limbs. My personal favorite is the STIHL MS 261, this is a commercial grade saw designed for heavy use!

Sometimes a pole saw is handy to reach higher branches. This is a chainsaw on the end of a pole that enables you to reach and cut higher in the tree, safely cutting branches while standing on the ground. We often use our pole saw to remove lower limbs so more sunlight can shine beneath the tree.

If you plan to mainly be cutting small branches you can use a loppers or hand pruners. Our Corona loppers is operated by two hands and is able to cut branches 2 inches in diameter! A Felco hand pruners is perfect for precise cuts on smaller diameter branches of 1 inch or less.

Maybe you have a hand saw, those will work as well. Although they are the slowest option and probably will also be the most strenuous to operate. They would work great if you only have several branches, you won’t want to be using a hand saw all day!

Ear and eye protection is essential if you are using a chainsaw! Ear plugs or ear muffs are always a great option for your ears and are easy to use. Safety glasses for the eyes, or even an arborist hard hat with a face screen to protect your head if you are cutting large limbs! My favorite hard hat/helmet is the STIHL ProMark and I have been using this model for several years!

If you will be climbing the tree, especially if you need to climb fairly high you will want a climbing saddle and climbing rope to safely maneuver around the inside of the tree! You would tie in with your climbing gear and be safe to move about!


Where To Start Trimming?

You will probably want to remove some lower limbs completely, to give you more clearance beneath the tree. It can be an inconvenience to have branches hanging to low and bumping heads when walking or mowing.

At my house my preference is to keep the branches well above the ground, that way I don’t have to maintain them again for several years.

If you are going to be doing light pruning and shaping you may want to start at the edges of the tree and work your way inward until you are happy will how it looks. Make your cuts just beyond a sprig with leaves on it. This will make your finished job look nicer and leafier.

If the leaves are not on the tree you still want to cut at the same place, when spring arrives the leaves will grow on that sprig and it won’t take long until the tree fills out with leaves again!

Another important step for the health of the tree is to cut off the small branches or twigs that are growing from the trunk or other large branches. These small branches don’t reach through the canopy and are shaded, they most likely will eventually die off anyway from overcrowding and lack of sunlight.


How To Trim Trees Correctly And Make Cuts That Promote Fast Healing

Some people may not care how the tree looks when they are finished, mostly worried about getting the job done as fast as possible. I occasionally get to a job with a tree that had low branches and somebody was tired of them being to low and hacked them off! Sometimes they will leave a 6 to 12 inch stub on the tree because its harder to cut there or they simply didn’t feel like cutting the rest of the stub off.

But, as a professional tree trimmer and co-owner of a family owned tree pruning and removal business I know how to trim trees correctly. My goal is to make the customer happy and to keep their trees beautiful, so we cut branches off close to the trunk! It looks much nicer and cleaner when we are finished, plus over time the tree can heal and grow over the cut, it can’t do that with a large stub there!

Generally while trimming trees we want our cuts to be clean and straight, cut at a fork in the branch to promote faster leaf growth, or cut flush with a larger branch or trunk so the tree can heal and grow over the cut.

Cutting very small branches with a chainsaw sometimes doesn’t result in the cleanest cut unless you cut the branch at its base near a thicker branch. The reason is the small branch is to thin to withstand the chainsaw pressing against it and will shake while you are cutting, probably leaving a slightly ragged cut. Your best option here would be to use a loppers or hand pruner.

Did you know there is a right and a wrong way to make the final cut on a branch you are shortening or removing? You may have already seen the wrong way if you saw a tree that was just trimmed and noticed a section of bark had been peeled of right below where a large branch had been cut?

Well hopefully not, because this is something you don’t want to have happening. It is usually a result of an improper cutting technique, when the chainsaw operator starts cutting the top of the branch and the branch bends down and tears off from the tree before it is completely cut. The bark was not cut on the underside of the branch and when the branch tears off from the tree it often pulls some bark from the trunk!

Here are instructions on how to trim trees correctly.

how to trim trees correctly

To make the correct cut so it does not strip the bark from the tree trunk or underside of the branch you will need to make a series of cuts. The first cut is an undercut “which is a cut on the bottom of the branch” about a foot from where your final cut will be. With this undercut you want to cut about 1/4 of the thickness of the branch.

Then bring your saw to the top of the branch and begin your 2nd cut which is on the top of the branch. If your first cut was 12 inches from the trunk, this cut should be about 12 to 14 inches from the trunk. Now when you cut and the branch begins to bend and tears from the tree it won’t strip the bark past your undercut! The undercut prevents stripping, think of it as a safety cut for the health of the tree!

Now you should have a stub about a foot long, identify where the branch collar is and begin your final cut on the top of the stub and beside the branch collar. Cut all the way through this last piece and you will have a nice clean and straight final cut!

Always leave the branch collar on the tree, it is usually a distinctive bulge at the base of the branch where it connects to the tree trunk. The branch collar can heal the wound left from pruning by sealing it off to minimize diseases and decay.


How Much Can We Cut Off The Tree?

Lower branches can be removed completely, this allows more sunlight to shine beneath the tree which will help the grass grow better and thicker. One thing you definitely don’t want is a mud hole under the tree in your front yard! Occasionally we have a job that has a tree like this. Branches hanging to the ground and barely any grass growing because of the constant shade.

Small branches growing inside the canopy should also be cut out, along with dead branches, this will help with the tree’s health and growth. Plus it looks nicer to be able to see up the inside of the tree and it looks clean and spacious, instead of it packed full of small useless twigs and leaves.

If you will be doing a crown reduction or reducing the entire tree, a good rule of thumb is to cut up to 20% to 30% of the tree. In some case more can be cut away but preferably not on a mature tree with a slow growth rate, those may need more like 15% to 20%. Mature trees need their foliage to stay healthy and alive, they may not recover from a severe trimming.


When Is The Best Time To Trim Or Prune A Tree?

To stimulate new growth – Trim in the winter.

To slow the tree growth – Trim in the summer.

If you don’t care, just want the job done – trim any time of the year.

Most times autumn and winter are ideal months to trim trees. The tree’s growing season is over and the cuts you make won’t stun the tree.

Although trees can be trimmed throughout the year, trimming them in the summer will slow its growing and it won’t grow as much until next spring when it will grow new branches to replace those that were removed.

We will do crown reduction throughout the year, but if the homeowner is OK to wait until fall or winter that would be preferable!

Benefits of waiting until late fall or winter include:

  • Less risk of disease or pest infestation, although that shouldn’t happen to a healthy tree.
  • It promotes a vigorous burst of new growth in the spring, quickly covering the cuts with leaves.
  • The absence of leaves makes it easier to see the branches that need to be trimmed.
  • The flowers and perennials that are often growing beneath or near trees are now dormant or cut back for the winter. Not having to worry about the flowers helps the job go faster and easier.


An Efficient Way To Dispose Of Cut Branches?

Well sometimes the chainsaw work is among the easiest of the entire job! It doesn’t seem to take long until their is a huge amount of branches laying on the ground and it is difficult to work around them! We often prefer to chip them as they are cut to prevent them from getting tangled together, but for you that may not be possible.

A few ways to dispose of the cut tree branches:

  • Cut them into manageable pieces and have a bonfire! Roast hot dogs and marshmallows!
  • Wait until the township is doing spring or fall cleanup and drag them beside the road to be picked up.
  • Haul them to a place that landscapers and arborists dump their waste, usually to be reground into mulch.
  • Rent or buy a wood chipper and chip them, you will be able to use the chips as mulch around your home!
  • Hire your local arborist or landscaper to come and remove them for you. Their equipment will make the job easy!

Now You Are Ready To Begin Pruning Your Tree!

Congratulations! Now you know the important and basic tips teaching how to trim trees correctly. You are ready to begin working on your own trees! I hope you can have an enjoyable and rewarding experience as you prune your trees and remove some lower limbs. Just remember to take enough of lower limbs off so you won’t be bumping your head as you walk or mow beneath the tree!

Remember to stay safe and watch out for falling branches. Also, if you are climbing, definitely keep an eye out for anybody working on the ground below you!

Keep your trees beautiful and your home may be the envy of the neighborhood!

If you have any questions about how to trim or which branches to remove, be sure to ask me in the comment section below, and I will get back to you with an answer for your question!

Your Arborist Friend: Justin

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