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University of Illinois Extension

The Know-How Makes Pruning a Snap

January 10, 2014

Pruning of newly planted and established trees can be an easy practice for informed gardeners. Pruning of landscape trees improves structure, aesthetic value and the tree's health. February and March are generally the time of the year to prune deciduous trees.

Tree pruning basics

-- Never top trees. Topping of trees, though commonly done to remove growth from power lines, results in weak tree growth.

-- Remove branches that are dead, diseased, rubbing or broken.

-- Temporarily leave lower branches on the tree until they reach an inch in diameter. This increases trunk and root growth.

-- When trees are young, the scaffold branches should be identified. Scaffold branches will make up the primary structure of the tree and should have wide angles — ideally 90 degrees. Branch angles should look more like a U than a V. They are evenly spaced vertically and radially up the tree (15 to 35 inches). Branches with narrower angles have included bark and may not be strong enough to withstand snow load, wind or fruit load. This is why trees such as silver maple are not recommended along streets.

-- Identify the dominant leader of the tree and avoid competing leaders by removing back to the trunk. If removing this alternate leader takes a large portion of the tree then prune back to a node a little each year until the chosen leader is dominant.

-- Remove water sprouts or suckers. Water sprouts are tree limbs that grow vertically and grow around old pruning wounds or where storm damage has occurred. Suckers are vertical branches that grow at the base of the tree.

-- Keep at least half of the foliage in the lower two-thirds of the tree. This will make a stronger base.

-- For large limbs take a three-cut approach to prevent stripping the bark. The first cut should be at least 4 to 6 inches from the main trunk and go from the bottom of the limb up half way up. Then the entire limb should be removed by saw cut with the second cut. The third cut will be just above the branch collar (swollen base of limb) without leaving a stub. The branch collar is where the tree develops callus tissue to prevent decay.

-- Covering of wounds is unnecessary. In fact covering wounds can prevent proper healing and provide a moist environment for fungal growth.

Upcoming articles will cover pruning flowering shrubs, hedges and evergreens.

Allsup is the University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator in Livingston, McLean and Woodford counties.

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Source: Kelly Allsup, Extension Educator, Horticulture, kallsup@illinois.edu

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