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General Pruning Guidelines

  • Start with plants that will fit into the space available. Use small plants for small spaces and never plant large trees under power lines. Limiting the growth of a large plant is difficult and the plant will never look it's best.
  • Always use the proper pruning tool for the job. Using a tool that is too small will damage the plant, possibly damage the tool, and could even injure you. Also remember, not everything that cuts is a pruning tool!
  • Never remove more than one third of a plant's total leaf area at any one time. if more severe pruning is required, do it in stages over several years. There are exceptions to this, but for most plants, the damage could be fatal.
  • Prune in the proper season. For best growth and flowering, prune when each individual plant will benefit most. All plants are not alike and pruning at the wrong time can eliminate a season's flowering and fruiting.
  • Always prune to a lateral bud or branch that will produce growth in a desirable direction. This will reduce the amount of pruning required later and train the growth in the direction you want.
  • Remove all dead, diseased, and broken branches. This can be done at any time of year. When removing diseased wood, disinfect your shears between cuts in a 70% alcohol solution to prevent spread of disease organisms.
  • Trim off cross-over branches, suckers, and other undesirable, weak, or weedy growth.
  • Never leave a stub that is larger than absolutely necessary. Stubs allow disease and decay to enter the plant.
  • When removing large limbs, always use the three-cut system to prevent trunk damage. Also be sure not to cut through the branch bark ridge or the bark collar.
  • Never, ever use pruning paint to cover a wound. Painting only worsens the problems it is supposed to correct. The tree will do much better if allowed to heal naturally.

Tip Pruning

bud tips

When pruning the tips of branches back to a dormant bud, always make the cut close to a healthy bud that is directed at the angle of desired growth. Once a bud has been selected, cut on a forty five degree angle, sloping upward toward the bud. Leave approximately 1/8 inch above the bud, but no more. An excessively large stub would die and introduce decay into the rest of the tree or shrub. A shorter stub would endanger the circulatory and support system of the bud, resulting in problems for the new shoot. A properly spaced cut will insure that the wound will heal quickly and that the new shoot will be healthy and securely anchored to the old stem.

Bud Selection

bud selection

As noted above, a healthy bud should be selected. A healthy bud is one that is firm and free from damage. Always select buds that will produce growth in a desirable direction. Imagine that the bud is a new shoot or twig. Be sure that the new shoot is in a desirable spot. By pruning to inward facing buds, growth is directed inward, resulting in twisted, cross-over branching. By selecting outward facing buds, growth develops toward the outside of the tree, allowing for proper development and reducing the need for additional pruning later.


The location of the branch bark ridge and bark collar indicate the location of the final cut. Identifying them is very important.

crossover branches

All suckers and water sprouts (dark shoots on the left sketch) should be removed as well as all cross-over branches (light shoots on right sketch)

Three-Cut System

3 cut system

Special care should be taken when removing large limbs. The weight of these limbs can cause serious damage to the trunk if precautions are not taken to prevent such damage. If the limb is cut from the top down, the branch may split under it's own weight and tear a section of bark and wood away from the trunk. Using this three-cut system will help to prevent such damage.

Begin by cutting on the lower side of the branch. Make the cut upward into the branch until the saw begins to bind. This cut should be made approximately twelve inches away from the trunk or lateral. The second cut is made three inches further out on the branch, directly above the first. As the process progresses, the branch will break under it's own weight, leaving a stub on the trunk. This stub is removed with the third cut. This cut is made as close to the trunk as possible without cutting through the branch bark ridge or the bark collar. The resulting wound will heal quickly and safely. No pruning paint or other dressing is necessary.