Proper Tree Pruning Techniques: Why, When, & How

When you hear “tree pruning,” the first thing that comes to mind may be the fussy types of trees that often require it. From decorative hedges to needy fruit trees, it’s easy to believe that only ornamental or dainty trees need the extra help.

However, this couldn’t be further from the truth! If you have trees on your property, the bottom line is that they need routine pruning every now and again.

In this article, we discuss the importance of pruning as well as the difference between improper and proper pruning techniques, so you can understand what’s best for you and your trees.

Do Trees Really Need Pruning?

RTEC Treecare tree service expert pruning local Virginia tree
RTEC Treecare tree service expert pruning local Virginia tree

Pruning should always be done with care, only making as many cuts as are necessary.

It’s easy to understand why many homeowners think trees don’t need pruning. After all, trees don’t get regular pruning when they grow in the wild, so why should they need pruning when they’re on your lawn?

Proper tree pruning is important because it:

  • Removes dead, weak, or diseased limbs and branches
  • Improves a tree’s form and shape
  • Maintains a desired tree height
  • Encourages new shoots
  • Improves air circulation within the canopy
  • Increases the amount of light that penetrates through the canopy onto the ground

At the end of the day, proper pruning habits can help keep your tree healthy and pleasant looking while correcting minor structural weaknesses. You might be surprised at the difference a few cuts can make!

When Should Trees Be Pruned?

Most trees have a pruning cycle of three to five years. However, a few factors will play a role in this cycle and the frequency your trees will need to be pruned.

Younger trees, for example, will often need more frequent pruning in order to establish a good shape and structure that will carry them through the rest of their lifespans. More mature trees will need less frequent pruning, as their structure is more established.

Tree species will also dictate its pruning needs. Evergreens can go years without needing pruning, for example, while most fruit trees need an annual pruning to ensure a good quantity and quality of fruit production. As a result, it can help to do some research into the types of trees on your property before you pick up your pruning shears.

If you’d like to carry out routine tree pruning, you should do so in the late winter to early spring. This ensures that a tree is finished with, or coming out of, its dormancy period, which is when it most needs all of its nutrients.

If you’re not sure when is the best time to maintain trees on your property, it may help to contact your local Certified Arborist. A tree care specialist can help you understand the needs of your tree species given its size, age, and current structure.

Of course, it’s worth noting that you don’t need to wait to cut back dead, diseased, or weak branches. If you’ve noticed any of the below problems in your tree, you should have your trees pruned as needed.

  • Broken, dead, or damaged branches
  • Branches that disrupt a tree’s shape, have grown too close together, or rub against each other
  • Suckers, or stringy branches that grow at the base and trunk of the tree
  • Water sprouts, weak branches that grow in clusters parallel to the trunk

Does Your Tree Need Pruning?

How Do You Prune Your Tree?

Proper tree pruning techniques are not one size fits all. Trees may require different pruning techniques, as they aren’t shaped the same. What should be applied to your trees depends on your needs and what is best for the health of your tree. Trimming the wrong large branches can not only damage your tree, but it can also be dangerous for you to do alone.

Below we discuss harmful and proper tree pruning techniques.

Harmful Tree Pruning Techniques: What Not To Do

There are a lot of companies still using improper tree pruning techniques. Typically these companies do not use improper techniques out of malice, but because they lack knowledge of newer, proper techniques. In the last 20 years, the Arboriculture industry has made great strides in understanding the biology of trees and how to best take care of them. A lot of the techniques we warn about were once considered tree service industry standards, but are now considered harmful.

tree that has been badly topped instead of properly pruned
Tree that has been badly topped


Tree topping is a harmful practice that removes large branches or whole tops of trees. Topping stresses the tree and can lead to health decline, structural defects, and infection.

Why Not To Top Trees:

  • Starvation: Good pruning practices rarely remove more than ¼ of the crown. Removing too much of the tree’s leafy portion (topping) interferes with the tree’s ability to manufacture food.
  • Shock: When a tree’s crown is removed, the remaining bark tissue, which is not usually exposed to direct rays of the sun, can sustain scalding similar to sunburn.
  • Insect Infestation & Tree Diseases: Large stubs left after being topped have a difficult time forming callus. These stubs are highly vulnerable to insect, disease and fungi infestation.
  • Weak Limbs: New growth that sprouts after a larger limb is removed tends to be weakly attached. Weakly attached limbs are more prone to breakage and falling.
  • Rapid New Growth: Topping is typically used to control the height and spread of the tree, but it has the opposite effect. The new growth that sprouts are more numerous and grow more rapidly than normal new growth. Alternative to topping: Tree Growth Regulator
  • Tree Death: Some tree species, like beeches, are less tolerant to topping and will not sprout after severe trimming. These trees will likely die after being topped.
  • Ugliness: Trees are disfigured by topping. Even if the tree recovers from the topping it will never regain the character of its species.
  • Cost: Topping a tree requires less skill than properly pruning a tree. Therefore, topping usually costs less in the short run. But, it’s costly in the long-run. A topped tree is likely to lead to a decrease in property value, increase in removal and/or treatment expenses, increased risk of liability and injury from weak branches, and increased maintenance of the tree.

Flush Cuts & Stubs

For many years it was common practice to use flush cuts. Thanks to further research and new knowledge as an industry, we now know that flush cuts are harmful to the tree.

Flush cuts are made too close to the trunk and remove the natural protection boundary of the tree. This can lead to trouble healing and decay to begin in the trunk. On the other hand, leaving stubs when you prune is detrimental to the tree as it often causes the stub to rot and cavities to develop.

tree pruning cut left a stump, bad technique
WRONG: This pruning cut left a stump.
WRONG: This tree pruning cut is a flesh cut. The branch collar and part of the trunk were removed.
WRONG: This is a flesh cut. The branch collar and part of the trunk were removed.
CORRECT: This tree pruning cut is right outside of the branch collar. This will allow it to properly heal.
CORRECT: This cut is right outside of the branch collar. This will allow it to properly heal.
Tree pruning CUTS TYPICALLY SEEN ON TREES #1 & #3 Incorrect, #2 Correct
CUTS TYPICALLY SEEN ON TREES #1 & #3 Incorrect, #2 Correct

Lion’s Tailing

Lion’s Tailing is the over-pruning of the interior branches of a tree’s crown. This unbalances the crown, distributing future growth towards the branch ends and shifts the tree’s center of gravity higher. Between the center of gravity change and weaker branch structure trees that have been lion’s tailed are more likely to snap easily during storms. Lion’s tailing may also result in sunburned bark tissues and waterspouts.

Climbing Spikes

Climbing spikes are sharpened steel spikes used to help tree care providers climb trees. These spikes puncture the tree’s bark and cause tree tissue death as well as open wounds that can lead to insect infestation or disease infection. Climbing spikes should NEVER be used when trimming a tree. Instead, professional tree service companies use proper tree trimming techniques and equipment such as ropes, climbing harnesses, aerial lift devices, and cranes. 

Wound Dressings

Wound dressings were once recommended. It was thought that these dressings accelerated wound closer and reduced decay; however, research has not substantiated this and in most cases wound dressing are not required nor recommended.

Proper Tree Pruning Techniques

RTEC Treecare tree service expert pruning local Virginia tree
RTEC Treecare tree service expert pruning local Virginia tree

There are many tree companies still in business that use these outdated techniques discussed above. When you hire companies that use outdated techniques you are actually paying them to damage your trees.

Proper Tree Trimming Cuts

A properly pruned tree should look its “natural” form and properly heal. While improper cuts lead to insect, disease, and decay, proper cuts provide benefits that will allow the tree to flourish.

  • Proper cuts should be smooth with no jagged edges or torn bark.
  • Proper cuts are made outside the branch collar. Pruning here most closely simulates where branches are shed naturally. Trimming the tree branch here does not damage trunk tissues.

Get Started With Proper Pruning Techniques

If you haven’t had your tree pruned before, it can seem overwhelming. Fortunately, trimming back a few smaller branches is unlikely to hurt an established tree, and it can even help ensure better health and a more attractive shape overall. This is also why it’s important to work with a Certified Arborist that you trust.

Know What Type Of Tree Trimming You’re Purchasing

Establish pruning objectives and type prior to contracting with the tree service company. This includes establishing whether it is a hazard prune or maintenance prune and what type of branches/how large diameter of branches they will be removing.

Quality Is Better Than Quantity

You may not see as many branches removed and wonder if you got enough pruning done. You can rest assured that the value of tree trimming doesn’t lie in bulk removal of branches. Rather, value comes from the specific size and type of branches being removed. For example, the removal of deadwood or branches under a certain diameter, and removal of branches done with proper cuts.

Improper Pruning Can Cost A Lot In The Long Run

Improper pruning leads to insect infestations, decay, diseases, and sometimes the death of your tree. Damages from improper pruning can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to mitigate. And if your tree does die from improper pruning, you may have to spend even more to have the tree removed, stump ground, and replaced. Either way, the money you save going with unprofessional tree service companies that don’t follow proper tree pruning techniques is nothing compared to what you will spend fixing their damages.

Here at RTEC, we make sure to abide by proper tree pruning techniques set forth by the Tree Care Industry Association, International Society of Arboriculture, and American National Standards Institute. Our tree trimming services maximize the health and safety of your tree.

Our team of Certified Arborists can carry out the proper pruning techniques for your tree based on its species, age, and size, and we’re happy to help! Reserve an appointment online or call us at 703.573.3029 to meet with one of our Certified Arborists.