A Lesson in Proper Tree Pruning

August 18, 2005

Defining good pruning:
Good pruning can be defined as ěpruning that improves or maintains a plantís long-term health, beauty and safety.î As with trees, shrub pruning is rarely done for the sake of the shrub itself. Pruning is done to please the

landscape owner who is finding fault with the existing design.The tree company is free to manipulate trees by pruning, as long as the health and beauty (long term) of the tree is not degraded by doing so.

Three kinds of cuts:
It is important to know the three kinds of pruning cuts, their effect on the plant health and their aesthetic results. Over the course of years the terminology for these cuts has changed, unfortunately, several times causing confusion. I still prefer the terms I was taught, and will use them here.

The first kind of cut is a "non-selective heading cut," used by most gardeners. This cut shortens the length of a branch by cutting it back to no place in particular, or internodally. Non-selective heading cuts are the hardest on plant health and aesthetics. This type of cut can cause dieback and the formation of unwanted stubs. And, depending on the species, it could stimulate the growth of water sprouts. Water sprouts are the rapid growing, unattractive, and numerous new shoots that are the common result of injury to plants, usually as a direct result of mal-pruning. Once stimulated into existence, water sprout cannot be stopped by removing them. This problem occurs after 90% of licensed and unlicensed contractors cut your trees. The prevention of water sprout formations should be a primary concern for tree care specialist, which I am sorry to say are in very short supply in Santa Barbara county, as water sprouts can ruin the aesthetics of plants, and lock the plant owner into a costly maintenance battle against their trees; a battle that cannot be won.

The second type of cut is the "selective heading cut." It is the right way to shorten a branch by cutting it back to a lateral of goodly size. This cut has also been called a "reduction cut" or a "drop crotch cut" on trees. If the remaining lateral is large enough, there will be no dieback and no water sprout response. The selective heading cut is also a general stress on a plant, though not as hard on health as a non-selective heading cut. Shrubs, far more than trees, can withstand overall size reduction pruning, although their response varies greatly according to their species.

The third kind of cut, the "thinning cut," removes a smaller lateral branch by cutting it off where it joins the larger, parent stem. This cut is the easiest on the health of the tree. Thinning is used to remove lower limbs of trees and shrubs (skirting, limbing-up). Numerous small thinning cuts can also be used throughout trees, making them less dense but not smaller in size. Thinning is often used to highlight the good internal branch structure of those trees and that have it. This does not mean strip off all the small branches inside the tree to show the limb structure. The thinning is usually needed in the outer 30% of the limb leaving at least 75% of the inner limb in place. Removing these limbs is a common practice and is called "stripping." 75% of the foliage on each limb is removed with absolutely no attention payed to the most important area ‚ the outer 30%. Under normal conditions no more than 25% of the entire tree should be removed. At this percentage even wind and rain should not be a problem. If someone tells your this is not true, you need to consider the credibility of who your are consulting.

For more information please contact your local tree care specialist. 688-5580


Santa Ynez Valley Tree Care
P.O. Box 1147, Santa Ynez, California 93460

(805) 688-5580

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