The Roundup -

By Tim Fine 

Pruning 101


Now that summer is behind us and the leaves are starting to turn, we are rapidly approaching the optimum time to prune trees and shrubs in our area. While pruning typically conjures up more questions than answers from most people, here are some very basic steps to consider before you start "hacking and whacking".

The first question that should be answered in regards to pruning is "when do I prune?". Typically, pruning is always recommended when trees are dormant, the same would apply for shrubs as well. There are some trees in the area that are starting to lose their leaves and many more are turning so we are just about to that point. Another disclaimer that needs to be made here is that there are going to be circumstances such as disease issues, hail/wind damage, critter damage (both large and small), etc.. that warrant pruning during the growing season. But it is best to prune when trees are dormant to prevent too much shock to the tree.

The most popular question I get when it comes to pruning is "what do I prune". As with most horticultural-related questions, there really is not a single straight answer that I can give. A couple of suggestions for you to consider are:

Are there limbs that are crossing over each other on the tree? If so, when the wind blows these limbs will rub against each other and cause open lesions on each limb and create a space for bug and or disease infestations.

What is the tree/shrub supposed to look like? Keeping a tree or shrub looking like a tree or shrub is sometimes a difficult thing to do but is a good guide when deciding what should stay and what should go. If an ornamental tree is supposed to be a weeping tree, it's a good idea to prune anything off that is growing straight up, or not weeping.

What is the purpose of this particular tree or shrub? Is it a shade tree or a fruit tree? Or would you like a little bit of both? Just know that, in general, a fruit tree should not be a good shade tree. Pruning fruit trees probably warrants an article all to itself but fruit trees that are also used as shade trees, in most instances, will not produce much high quality fruit.

The next question to answer is why. Why would a person bother pruning something that is just going to grow more and need it again next year? Again, there is no simple answer to this question but basically a well maintained tree will be less prone to disease issues, will last longer, and probably most importantly; if you prune out some problem branches when they are younger and much smaller, it can save you quite a bit of time, labor, and sometimes money down the road.

The toughest question to answer when it comes to pruning is the "how do I do it" question. I could have devoted this entire article to just this question. So, although I do not have room to go into a whole lot of detail, let me just give you a few pointers as you get started.

Most importantly, always prune back to a branch, or back to where the twig or branch that you are pruning is attached to another branch or twig. Topping a tree or just trying to cut everything to a certain height is never a good idea. The way that a tree is engineered to grow what you will get is what we call a "witches broom" effect from cuts not made back to a branch. This is absolutely the single most important thing to remember.

Another guideline is to keep thinking about 1/3's. The "1/3 rule" basically has two guidelines associated with it.

Always cut back to a branch that is at least 1/3 the size of the branch/twig you are pruning off, and

When possible, never remove more than 1/3 of the entire canopy.

Both of these will help with the movement of nutrients throughout the tree.

When pruning larger branches, use the three cut method. Because of the weight of larger branches, sometimes when you try to cut them off they will tear bark off with them as they are falling from the tree. The three cut method involves cutting about half way through the branch on the underside of the branch. The second cut is then made just a few inches further out on the branch on the top side of the branch. You will find that, as you make that second cut the branch will fall off but will only fall back to where you made the first cut and not rip the bark. Then the third cut can be made where the branch joins the trunk at what we call the collar.

I know that there is quite a bit of information in this article but, like I said, it really only covers a small portion of information related to pruning. If you are interested, there is a great resource from Kansas State Extension, located at Of course, if you are getting started and need some help, you are always welcome to call me in the Extension Office at 433-1206 or send me an email to


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