How to prune tree branches

There are numerous reasons why people prune their trees and shrubs, from promoting healthier growth to removing hazards and blockages, and if you take your gardening seriously, you’ll probably already own secateurs, loppers, a pruning saw, or some other pruning tool.

However, if you’re new to all this, then you need to know the right way to go about cutting branches from your trees. Using the wrong tools, pruning at the wrong times, and using bad techniques, are just some of the mistakes you can make, and they will inevitably cause irreparable damage to your woody plants rather than help them to thrive.

So, to help you avoid making those errors, we decided to write this short but informative article on how to prune tree branches correctly. Let’s start off with going over the reasons for pruning branches.

Why prune your tree branches?

Pruning your trees offers many benefits, and not only for cosmetic or aesthetic reasons, although that is sometimes the case. Here is a shortlist of just some of the main advantages of trimming your branches properly.

Keep your trees healthy
Just like people, trees are susceptible to disease so it is often necessary to remove infected branches. The same goes for dead branches or ones that have become infested with pests. By removing the problem branches, whether that is with a pruning saw or another suitable tool, you can prevent the spread of these problems to the healthier parts of the tree.

Train young trees to grow in a specific way
Trees that have good structure, as it relates to the branches, are healthier but not all trees grow that way naturally. To help steer young trees to develop a better structure, some gardeners use secateurs to remove unwanted branches and this makes the trees develop in other directions. For larger trees, you’ll need bigger tools to have the same results such as a chainsaw or loppers.

Removing unwanted or detrimental branches and other growth
Sometimes trees develop with growth that is actually detrimental to their overall health. Things like branches growing in a way that they clash with others, shoots popping up from the branches and tree trunk, and other unwanted growth needs to be dealt with, and pruning is the method of choice for most folks.

To encourage a greater yield from fruit trees
gardeners that have been growing fruit trees for a while will tell you about how the correct pruning of those trees results in the amount of, and quality of, their fruit improving. This is also true for many flowering plants and cutting the branches in the right way can have you smiling broadly when they come into bloom.

Pruning for safety reasons
Branches growing over your fence might need pruning if they could pose a danger to passersby, either from falling on them, or simply people scratching their faces from walking into them. You might also have a problem with branches growing towards the windows of your house, garage, or shed, and will want to cut them back.

What are the best times for pruning?

The two best times for pruning branches are early spring and mid to late summer. Pruning in late spring or late winter is usually carried out when the gardener is trying to promote new growth, as is usually the case with flowering trees or fruit trees.

Pruning in summer won’t promote growth as we mentioned above, and so cutting back the branches at this time is better for thinning out overgrown trees. You have to keep in mind that the colder months are just around the corner, and the frost can cause damage to newly clipped branches, so don’t leave it too late in the season to do so.

Understanding the different types of buds

To get the right results from your pruning, it is important to understand the different buds found on tree branches. Through proper understanding of these three different types of buds, you can promote the growth of your tree in the desired direction. The three types are-

Terminal buds
These are the buds that grow at the end of a shoot, branch, etc. When these buds are not cut, the stem will grow in their direction and other buds on the same branch or shoot will not grow well, due to the hormones that terminal buds produce. terminal buds are usually cut to stop branches growing out of control and encroaching on other areas of the garden such as the patio or driveway.

Lateral buds
As you may have guessed from their name, these are the buds that grow along the sides of the branches, and when the terminal bud on that branch is removed, they will start to grow outwards, creating a bushier tree or shrub. However, if you prune lateral buds and leave the terminal bud intact, the branch will grow in length.

Dormant buds
Dormant buds, also known as latent buds, come in very handy when pruning to repair a branch that is damaged. Locating the nearest dormant bud and then pruning the branch close to it can cause the dormant bud to wake up, and might result in a new shoot developing.

How much or often should I prune?

It is easy to get carried away while trimming branches, especially when you’ve got a new chainsaw or multi-tool to play with, but over-pruning can cause damage to your trees that they won’t recover from. As a rule of thumb, you should never prune more than a quarter of the tree’s total branches, and should always try to trim as little as possible to get the job done.

Most gardeners agree that you should never do a heavy pruning session more than once a season, but it might be necessary to trim individual branches due to damage or infection. If not, then leave the tree to recover until the following season.

What tools do I need?

The bigger variety of tools you have, the better I always say, as there are times when you need loppers, and there are times when you need a pole pruning saw or maybe just some shears. Personally, my toolset includes secateurs, hand, and electric pruning saws, loppers, and a chainsaw, and I use them all for different tasks at different times.

Always make sure that you keep your pruning tools clean and that the blades are sharpened or you risk making the tree vulnerable to infection. For this reason, I also recommend that you buy bypass secateurs to use on live branches and only use anvil models on dead wood.

In addition to your cutting tools, you’ll need a wheelbarrow to remove the debris, and you might want to think about investing in a chipper, or even a manual log splitter, to make good use of those cut-off branches.

What is the correct way to prune a tree branch?

If you are going to cut the branch off near the trunk, you need to locate the branch collar which will be a darker area where the branch is coming out of the trunk. It could also be marked by a circular pattern, so keep an eye out for this.

The reason you want to locate the branch collar is that you will cut the branch off after that point, on the branch side, so that it will heal properly, creating a callus and preventing rotting in the future. I usually use my petrol chainsaw or loppers (depending on the size of the branch) to cut the branch with a few inches left after the collar first, and then make a second cut closer to it with more accuracy, and closer to the collar. I find this works best for me.

If you are going to trim off a stem to promote bushy growth, a process known as heading, you need to cut just above the nearest lateral bud to your intended trimming point. For the best results, and to lower the risk of infection and other problems, make a nice clean cut at a 45-degree angle.

Well, there you have it guys, a short overview of how to prune branches. Like with all things gardening, there is far more to it all and you can study more in-depth in the future after getting to grips with the basics. For now, though, I think we covered most of the need-to-know information for you.

About Terry Smith

I’m Terry Smith from, a professional landscape designer, hobbyist gardener, and barbecue fanatic with 20 years experience building and restoring. So as you go through my site you'll watch me document some of the professional garden installs I make as well as the major projects I take on at home. While sharing those experiences and guiding you, I'll be recommending some great tools I use to enable this along the way so you can really buy in confidence. Always feel free to pop me a message:

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