How to Prune a Tree That Is Overgrown

Audrey Bruno
Written by Audrey Bruno
Updated December 27, 2022
Man pruning tree sunlight
Photo: ozgurcankaya / Getty Images

Here’s how to snip off those dead ends so your trees can flourish

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Trees have so much to offer, from clean air to cool shade, fragrant blossoms, delicious fruit, and breathtaking canopies. However, sometimes they need a little help from us in order to be at their best. When done correctly and intentionally, pruning a tree can keep it beautiful and healthy for years to come. Let’s branch out and discuss how to prune a tree, as well as why and when to do it.

Why Do I Need to Prune My Trees?

Everybody needs a haircut from time to time—even trees!

Aside from aesthetic purposes, pruning do a few things for our leafy friends. For one, it removes dead or diseased branches which both keeps trees healthy and strong and encourages new growth. Pruning fruit trees at the right moment will even ensure that they produce more and better fruit when the time comes.

Pruning may also be necessary if any tree branches are extremely overgrown and are starting to pose safety risks—like someone hitting their head on a low-hanging branch. Leaves that rub together can also become infected more easily so you should prune or trim those as well. Or you could simply trim your tree to give it a new, sculptural look. There’s almost always a good reason to whip out your clippers. 

Is Pruning the Same as Trimming?

It’s important to note that there is a difference between pruning and trimming. Trimming should happen several times a year and involves cutting off parts of branches to maintain size and shape and encourage new branch and leaf growth. 

On the other hand, pruning should only happen once every two to three years and involves removing dead or sick parts of the tree. Pruning is a much more intensive process because it may require you to remove an entire branch from the base of the tree rather than just one part of it.

How Much Does It Cost to Prune Trees?

The cost to hire a pro to trim trees ranges from $200 to $760 and is about $460 on average for everything involved. While it can cost less to do it yourself, that depends on your situation. For example, if you need to remove large, dead branches from high heights, a pro will be better able to handle the risk of hazardous, falling branches. On the flipside, if a quick trim is all you need, you’ll save a lot by going the DIY route.  

When to Prune Trees

Hands gloves pruning orange tree
Photo: siculodoc / Adobe Stock

Depending on your intentions for pruning, you should opt for different times of the year. For shaping and promoting fruit, the best time to prune is during the dormant season, from December to March. This leaves them the least vulnerable to insects and disease, plus it gives them plenty of time to heal up before spring. You should remove dead and diseased tree branches as soon as you notice them, as well as branches that pose a safety hazard. And trees that are pruned to look a certain way should be trimmed again any time they start to lose their shape—for example, whip out your garden shears when your carefully crafted hedge begins to lose its definition or when you notice more dead leaves on a tree than usual (and it isn’t during fall).

Prepping to Prune a Tree

Pruning your trees is an easy DIY project that you can knock out in just a couple hours of work, but you’ll need to do a bit to prepare.

Gather Your Tools and Protect Yourself

Most pruning projects only require garden shears and/or loppers, depending on the size of the branches. However, larger tree trimming projects (where you might have to remove entire branches) may also require a handsaw. It’s also important to protect yourself from splinter and  wood chips with safety goggles, protective gloves, and even helmets for certain cases, like when removing heavy branches from high up that could be at risk of falling.

Similarly, make sure to do all pruning during good weather—rainy and windy conditions increase the risk of slipping while on a ladder or branches falling from above. Here’s everything you may need no matter the scope of the project.

  • Safety goggles

  • Protective gloves

  • Safety helmet

  • Pruning shears (for cuts up to 3/4 inches in diameter)

  • Loppers (for branch diameters up to 1.5 inches)

  • Handsaw (for cutting branches over 1 inch in diameter)

  • Pole saws (for branches up high)

Get to Know the Different Pruning Methods

There are four main ways to prune a tree and each method is better for different purposes. Knowledge of different pruning techniques is why hiring a pro is usually best.

  • Crown thinning: This method involves removing branches throughout to better expose the remaining branches to light. More light exposure equals more photosynthesis which allows the tree to grow better and more quickly, so this technique is best for young trees that are still finding their footing and need the extra boost.

  • Crown raising: This pruning technique involves removing branches from just the base of a tree to provide more overhead clearance. Use this option if your tree has a lot of low-hanging branches. 

  • Crown reduction: The goal of this method is to remove branches at the top of the tree to reduce its overall height, but is much harder to do and more inconvenient than any other pruning technique. The goal of this method is to remove branches at the top of the tree to reduce its overall height, but is much harder to do and more inconvenient than any other pruning technique. The difference between crown reduction and tree topping is that tree topping involves chopping off large branches and usually ruins the structure of a tree, whereas crown reduction isn’t so intensive. Either way, only do it when absolutely necessary, such as when tree top branches are infected or dead. 

  • Crown cleaning: This type of pruning involves only removing branches that are dying or already dead in order to preserve the overall health of the tree.

How to Prune Trees

Pruning trees can make your blooms last longer, but only if you know how to do it correctly. Follow these steps to keep yourself and your tree safe.

1. Make a Halfway Cut on the Underside of the Branch

Make your first cut on the underside of the branch, about a foot away from the trunk and about ¼ inch above a healthy bud. Be careful not to cut too close to the bud or as doing so may kill it. The cut should go about halfway through the branch. This prevents the branch from cracking too close to the tree trunk as it falls.

2. Follow the Undercut With a Top Cut Slightly Further From the Trunk

Your second cut should go through the top of the branch, about an inch further away from the trunk. These two cuts allow the branch to fall off cleanly, avoiding the chance of tearing or ripping.

3. Make a Final Cut Just Past the Branch Collar

Once left with a stub, make your final cut on the branch side just past the branch collar. This is the raised mound where the branch meets the tree trunk. It’s important not to cut into or past the branch collar on the trunk side, as this will leave an open wound that can invite disease and hungry insects.

Pruning Best Practices to Remember

Man in tree pruning with orange shears
Photo: Cherries / Adobe Stock

The act of pruning or trimming a tree is simple and straightforward, but you may still encounter obstacles without proper prep and the right tips. File these practices away for all your tree pruning needs.

1. Make a Pruning Plan

Remember the pruning mantra: Always prune with a purpose. Are you shaping the tree, removing obstructive tree branches, or taking out dead and diseased portions? For flowering and fruit trees, cut to remove branches until you have a balance of both upright and horizontal stems to promote a higher yield. For diseased or dead branches, cut at least 6 inches below the affected area to ensure the problem is fully removed.

Avoid pruning more than 25 percent of a tree at one time, because doing so can damage or even kill the tree. When in doubt, trim a bit less than you think. Older trees can tolerate even less foliage loss, and it’s safer to use a light touch if you’re not totally sure what you’re dealing with.

2. Leave Enough Branches to Maintain Tree Health

As a general rule, do not remove more than a quarter of the tree’s branches at once, as this can stress it out and potentially kill it. The exception is whenever you’re removing dead or diseased parts of the tree. All of these need to get removed ASAP before they can spread or take resources from healthy branches.

3. Don’t Cut Into the Trunk or Parent Branches

As you work, avoid cutting major branches that make up the core skeleton of the tree. These are vital to the tree’s health, and removing them can cause severe stress. Also, take care not to cut into or flush with the trunk. Again, this will create a wound that makes the tree vulnerable to insects and disease.

4. Prune Cherry and Plum Trees at the Exact Right Moment

This family of fruit trees is prone to something called silver leaf disease. They’ll typically contract this disease during the fall and winter from August to March when the spores are in the wind and sap production is low (higher amounts of sap help trees heal more quickly). Instead, plan on pruning any trees of this ilk from April to June to keep them healthy.  

5. Don’t Use Wound Paint on Fresh Cuts

If your tree bleeds sap when you trim it, you may be tempted to use wound paint to seal it up. However, doing this may actually do more harm than good. Although sap leaks may not be appealing to look at and can weaken a tree, they aren’t fatal and will resolve themselves in due time.

Sealing these wounds may interfere with their natural healing process and potentially even trap diseases that could end up damaging it. The only time you may need to use wound paint is to protect open wounds on cherry and plum trees from silver leaf spores.

6. Contact a Pro for Specific Branches That Cross Electrical and Utility Wires

If the tree’s branches hit utility or power lines, do not attempt to prune them yourself. The risk of electrical shock is extremely high, not to mention the risk of other damages. Instead, contact your utility company and they will send someone to safely remove them for you. If your tree is also too sick to fix, you may need to hire a pro to remove it. The cost to hire a pro for tree removal ranges from $200 to $2,000.

DIY vs. Hire a Pro

When pruning, pros sometimes use tools like specialized saws and bracing systems to safely remove branches from large trees, and it can cost up to $1,100 to buy or rent all those same things to do it yourself. However, simply pruning a small tree for upkeep usually doesn’t require additional purchases. As long as you have shears and a ladder, you should be good to go.

Frequently Asked Questions

Deciduous shade trees (the type of trees whose leaves fall off in autumn) need to be pruned in late winter—between February and March. That’s because it’s easier to find and remove sick or dead branches when no leaves are present. And wounds close and heal faster in colder temperatures so pruning them at this time also makes them less prone to infection.

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