6 Worst DIY Tree Pruning Mistakes

Unlike a terrible haircut, badly pruned tree branches won’t grow back. When it comes to tree pruning, “take a little off the top” is one of the worst things you can do – it stresses trees, leaving them vulnerable to disease and structurally unsafe.

It doesn’t take a trained tree expert to spot a bad pruning job but it does take one to do the job right.

Unfortunately, we’re often called in to fix a DIY pruning job gone wrong – and sometimes we even have to remove the tree entirely because it can’t be saved.

Keep in mind that once those branches are gone, they’re gone for good…

So if you plan to do some tree pruning around your property (or hire someone to do it for you), here’s a list of the top 6 tree pruning mistakes and how you can avoid making them.

Tree Pruning Mistake #1 – Zero Time Spent Training

Pruning trees (especially large trees) isn’t for amateurs, although many try.

Tree pruning can be hazardous to your health or to the health of the untrained tree worker you hire. Besides the obvious possibility for injury, there’s also the potential for serious and permanent damage to your trees and property.

Although the basic concepts are the same, properly removing branches from a sizable tree is very different from pruning a shrub. It requires specialized equipment for climbing or getting up into the tree (never use a ladder!), safety training (did we mention it’s dangerous work?), and a knowledgable and capable ground crew to do it properly and safely.

Instead of making tree pruning a DIY project, hire a Certified Arborist to evaluate your trees and to do the work safely and correctly.

Tree Pruning Mistake #2 – Topping the Tree

Inexperienced tree pruners often cut the tree’s top off in an attempt to reduce the tree’s height. But topping causes more tree problems because it stimulates sucker growth, and suckers are less structurally sound.

A Certified Arborist who follows industry best standards will not top a tree.

The only way to reduce the height of a tree is by pruning a larger branch to a smaller side branch, keeping the tree’s original structure intact.

Tree Pruning Mistake #3 – Pruning Big Branches

Pruning that cuts large branches – 4 inches in diameter or bigger – increases the potential for internal decay because the tree has a tough time recovering from the cut. Plus, large branches are far heavier than you might imagine and unless they’re stabilized with appropriate rigging, it’s quite possible to do enormous damage when they drop.

If you’ll be doing the pruning yourself, limit pruning cuts to branches 2-3 inches in diameter or smaller to minimize the possibility of problems in the future. Or, if a larger branch really must be removed, call in a Certified Arborist to do it properly.

Tree Pruning Mistake #4 – Cutting Into the Branch Collar

The branch collar is the area where the branch attaches to the tree’s trunk. When pruning cuts are too close to the branch collar, it opens the potential for decay that spreads to the tree’s trunk. When pruning cuts are too far from the branch collar, the tissue usually dies and delays the wound closure.

When making pruning cuts you should make sure the branch collar isn’t nicked or injured so the cut area can heal quickly, yet be close enough to avoid creating an ugly stump.

Tree Pruning Mistake #5 – Damaging the Bark

When pruning large branches, there’s always the possibility of causing damage to the bark. When large branches are cut and allowed to fall (which is what most DIY pruners tend to do), the bark will rip down the side of the tree, injuring the tree and leaving it vulnerable to pests and disease.

Use a three-step pruning method to reduce the risk of harming the bark. Before making the pruning cut at the branch collar, make two initial pruning cuts (one on the underside of the branch and one further out) to reduce the weight of the branch and avoid ripping the bark.

Tree Pruning Mistake #6 – Pruning Off Too Much At Once

Overpruning can lead to problems with suckers that grow from the trunk or branches. Because suckers aren’t structurally stable, they can be easily damaged and cause the tree to become unsafe. Plus, it’s not a good look.

Limit pruning to 5% to 20% of the tree canopy when making pruning cuts on live wood, depending on the age, growth and health of the tree.

Because the goal of tree pruning is to have strong, healthy and good-looking trees, avoid these top 6 tree pruning mistakes that weaken trees and leave them exposed to damage and disease.

If you’re not sure about doing it yourself (particularly if you have a larger tree that needs pruning), call on the Certified Arborists at Organic Plant Care. We’ll make sure it’s done right.

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Bill Grundmann

Bill is the owner of Organic Plant Care, LLC. He takes an integrated approach to tree care, focusing not only on the trees themselves but also on the surrounding environment, managing tree health from the "ground up" - healthy soil equals healthy plants. Bill is a New Jersey Licensed Tree Expert and NJ Approved Forester with over 35 years of experience in the tree care industry.