The Art of Cutting and Pruning Trees

October 17, 2014 Paul Muto Tree Care Tips


In this article I will be discussing Pruning. I will be discussing types of trees and pruning practices that will enhance the health and beauty of your trees and attempt to describe tree cutting to you, so whether you perform the art of tree cutting or pruning yourself or are looking for a professional to cut your trees, you will know that you are choosing the right professional Arborist (Tree Cutter) to maintain the beauty of your yard.

When beginning to look at your yard you might be overwhelmed and wonder where you should start. First, for those of you brand new to a tree pruner or pruning saw, let me remind you that, just as working with knives in a kitchen, these tools are sharp; so proper safety equipment should be considered to prevent injury. This should include a pair of comfortable work gloves to protect the hands, eye protection, ear protection (if loud power equipment is being used) and a hard hat (if you are cutting branches that are over your head, pine cones or hidden broken off branches are in lodged in canopy you are working on). Tree cutting is a dangerous and laborious job. If you feel you are not able to complete your project from beginning to end without trouble or personal injury, you should call a tree care professional.

Okay, let’s get started! We have on our personal safety equipment and we walk out into the yard. Starting with the first tree, choosing a simple job to start, we will be removing a low hanging branch from another tree branch to allow you to use the area under it without hitting your head. This branch should be one that will fall to the ground without hitting anything.  Using manufacture’s recommendations, we will start our power chain saw. We will be removing this branch with three cuts: The first is an undercut (approximately 12 -18 inches from the tree). Start by cutting into the branch approximately ¼ of the diameter on its underside, being careful to not allow the branches weight to close the cut; thereby pinching the blade and rendering your chainsaw useless. Next, place the chainsaw on top of the branch, approximately 2 inches in front of the undercut you made, cutting slowly and deliberately. As the branch begins to fall, ease off on the downward pressure and allow the branch to fall on its own. *A note of caution here: Sometimes the saw blade can become lodged in the cut and the angle can make it hard to remove from cut before tree branch falls. If this happens, do not fight with the saw, as this can result in bodily injury. Instead, allow the saw to fall with branch. This is not desired, but it’s a better option then losing your hand. Even professionals from time to time can have this happen to them, which is why today’s chainsaws are made of hard impact plastic and can take a licking* For the finishing cut remove the tree branch stub, at a 45 degree angle, leaving as little stub as possible so the tree will easily compartmentalize around it. There are different schools of thought on this final cut, but in my opinion this is the best one, as there are sap flows (much like arteries) behind the branch collar that we want to avoid.  Now that you have removed your first branch, the real work is in removing the debris and disposing of it. I will discuss safe and efficient cleanup in a later lesson.

Let’s move on to something new! Almost everyone has a fruit tree to prune, and there are different practices for different fruit trees. There are fruit trees that grow their fruit on the first year’s growth. Some of these are Apple, Pear, and Cherry, as well as others.  There are trees that grow their fruit on the second year’s growth: some of these are Apricot, Peach, and Nectarines, as well as others. Let’s start with first year growth fruit trees. The difference with trimming shade trees and fruit trees, among other things, is we are trying not to remove all the fruiting wood or branches that will produce the fruit that we want. We will lose some and that is acceptable, as this pruning will help to protect the trees limbs by reducing the weight from over production of fruit, as well as give us larger and sweeter fruit, which is desirable. There are many new methods that are being used such as with apple and pear trees that are being conformed to topiary poles in orchards (an example being in southern Oregon where they are being sold to fancy retailers like Harry and David). However, in our yards we don’t need a bumper crop and we will be trimming “old school,” as we want to work with the fundamentals here. First, let’s start by removing the suckers and water sprouts. Suckers are the growth that develop from the stump base, and/or roots. Waterspouts develop within the canopy. Water sprouts are pretty easy to identify as they will grow straight up and not in the direction that the branch is growing. Ok, now that you’ve finished with those, let’s try to spot any dead or diseased branches that should be removed. All done? Great! Believe it or not we are almost done. Ensure there are not any crossing branches, or branches that originate from one side of the tree and end up on the other side of the tree. The tree should be getting pretty thin by now, and if desire, you might want to save some of these branches to be pruned off later so you can have more fruit this year. If the branching is abundant, or too long, you might want to consider tipping back branches a little, but take care to not prune off all the new growth fruiting spurs. Specifically on Cherry trees, you will head the tree down or make it shorter; depending on its height. It is usually cut to about a fourth to one third of its overall height; remove all suckers.  Avoid other pruning other than removing dead wood and diseased branches. In larger trees, remove cross branches and waterspouts.

Now, let’s focus on the second year growth fruiting trees. These trees are similar as we start with removing the suckers, waterspout growth, and dead and diseased- take a few minutes to review if you’re having trouble remembering. The difference is in the orchards these trees are headed and literally flat topped. They use sophisticated industrial machines, which is quite fascinating to watch. However, we will be standing on an “A” frame ladder and using pruning loppers and/or a pole pruner. *Ladders can be hazardous so take care when using them. Now that we have flat topped the tree, we now prune the fruiting spurs to about 7– 12 inches in length. It is not difficult to do and your end result will be fine. You may use one of my little simple tricks that helps me move through the tree quicker: Shake the branch (one branch at a time) and you should see a lot of little eighth inch to one quarter inch spurs. Cut those 7 – 12 inches long (yes all of them). You will see it will turn out right if you do this. If it does not rain while the pollination process is on-going (and with additional help from bees) you should have plenty of fruit. That is it for smaller fruit bearing trees- Citrus trees are next!

Yes, citrus trees are fruit trees, but they are different altogether. In the orchards they only trim to allow the equipment to pass through the rows. We should discuss a few things that will help you understand citrus trees. First, they are a type of broadleaf evergreen and trees and shrubs in this category are pruned (in general) from March to August. In the case of citrus trees, remember the sweetest fruit will be on the bottom branches, so leave them low if you can. Also, prune out dead or diseased branches. Feel free to include branches nearer buildings or above walkways when applicable. Oh, and no pruning of young trees at all. Most trees will not need pruning for 2 years after planting, and some may not need pruning for 5 years. That’s pretty much it!

Now for Shade Trees! These are trees put in landscapes for ornamental reasons, or for providing shade in the landscape. As we do the other trees, we will start with removing suckers from the base of the tree. Now lets move on to the upper canopy. We could use a pole saw or pole pruner, or if the tree is strong enough, we will climb into the tree and clean out the waterspouts, crossing branches, dead wood, and diseased branches or limbs. *Before you do climb into the tree: this takes specialized equipment and is extremely dangerous without it. I advise, before you do, you purchase a fall arrest safety belt (or saddle) and safety ropes (and in the case of larger trees a repelling line). Again, Practice Extreme Caution Here! If you feel you are not capable of performing this from beginning to end without trouble, do yourself a favor and call a professional tree care provider, before you hurt yourself. We will go on assuming it is a smaller tree or you are capable of doing this work. From inside the tree, let’s look for any other problems we could not see from the ground. Some of these trees can be very full, and individual limbs can be pruned independently with amazing results. This can also reduce weight on these limbs, making them safer while allowing light penetration to the lower landscape. What I tend to do in these cases is I will alternate branches to be removed. I’ll remove one side of the limb, then on the other side of the main limb a branch or limb is removed.  This depends on branch size and length but the goal is keeping them about 18 inches apart out on the main limb being trimmed.

Moving on to Ornamentals: These are the smaller trees ordinarily (like Japanese Maples). It is with a bit more detail and care that we handle these however it is still by the same process that we start. We will assume that our work project is a 12 foot Japanese maple (planted on the north side of our property to protect it from scalding summer sun) that is now 20 years old, large, and full. First, remove the suckers from the base (if any) then, with a sharp hand saw and bypass hand pruners we will remove water sprouts and dead wood within the tree. Now we will remove crossing branches. Like with our fruit trees mentioned above we might put some of the cross branches off to later seasons for the sake of a more full tree, but if possible remove all crossing branches as early as possible (after tree is at least 5 years old) as the tree will compartmentalize over its cut wounds much faster if it is small. Now the tree is noticeably thinner. Here is another trick of the trade I use that works well: Look through the tree at this point of the pruning cycle and see the day light or sky or back drop scene behind it and thin out unnecessary branches in heavier areas of the tree to match evenly throughout the canopy. Now we will use our by pass hand pruners and crawl into the tree canopy- depending on your agility but most should be able to do this. Remember when you were a kid and crawled through tree canopies? If this is not your cup of tea, again I advise calling a Qualified Tree Care Professional. Assuming, again, you are alright with this work, carefully settle yourself on branches thick enough to hold your weight, while placing feet as close as possible to the strongest part of branch (this is usually where limb joins trunk). Stabilize yourself with your safety belt and rope. With your hand pruners, remove dead twigs and some, but not all, of the growth inside the canopy. I like to leave some so it catches the eye and looks natural. I will remove small branches in the crotches of connecting branches to accent the tree. *A note of pruning caution: we are not trying to strip everything off the tree branch out to the tip. That is an erroneous pruning practice (dubbed Lion Tailing) and will further elongate the branch, making it top heavy. Instead, use the technique discussed in the pruning of Shade trees. This works just as well here, where you can prune individual limbs independently with amazing results, and, as above, this also can reduce weight on these limbs making them safer and allowing light penetration to the lower landscape. What you could also do is alternate branches to be removed (one side of the limb then the other side of the main limb). A branch or limb is removed and, depending on branch size and length (about 18 inches apart), trimmed  away leaving a herring bone pattern- a phrase that I believe I am coining first here in this article. I believe I am painting a picture that you don’t need too much imagination to follow. Now that this is done, come down and finish off the tree with a pole pruner. Walk around the tree, and with an artist’s eye, look at the tree and perfect it as if you were preparing it for a photograph; removing renegade sprouts or stragglers. Square off the bottom of the tree, also known as the skirt of the tree. Ok, I think we are done here. The tree should be much more visually appealing to you.

As you can see in this article many of the trees have very similar work done to them; with some minor specifics for individual cases. Tree cutting is fun and very rewarding, in my opinion, and even therapeutic; I’m sure some would agree.

Well, this concludes our lesson. I hope you enjoyed it. Remember if you have limitations that disqualify you from doing this work you should always call only persons or companies that are skilled at safely and artistically caring for your trees.

For more information you can call me a (916) 532-0618 or email me your questions at Please visit the rest of my web site at

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