When to Prune:
Conifers may be pruned any time of year, but pruning during the dormant season may minimize sap and resin flow from cut branches.
Hardwood trees and shrubs without showy flowers prune in the dormant season to easily visualize the structure of the tree, to maximize wound closure in the growing season after pruning, to reduce the chance of transmitting disease, and to discourage excessive sap flow from wounds. Recent wounds and the chemical scents they emit can actually attract insects that spread tree disease. In particular, wounded elm wood is known to attract bark beetles that harbor spores of the Dutch elm disease fungus, and open wounds on oaks are known to attract beetles that spread the oak wilt fungus. Take care to prune these trees during the correct time of year to prevent spread of these fatal diseases. Contact your local tree disease specialist to find out when to prune these tree species in your area. Usually, the best time is during the late fall and winter.
Flowering trees and shrubs should also be pruned during the dormant season for the same reasons stated above; however, to preserve the current year's flower crop, prune according to the following schedule:
Trees and shrubs that flower in early spring (redbud, dogwood, etc.) should be pruned immediately after flowering (flower buds arise the year before they flush, and will form on the new growth).
Many flowering trees are susceptible to fireblight, a bacterial disease that can be spread by pruning. These trees, including many varieties of crabapple, hawthorn, pear, mountain ash, flowering quince and pyracantha, should be pruned during the dormant season. Check with your county extension agent or a horticulturist for additional information.
Trees and shrubs that flower in the summer or fall always should be pruned during the dormant season (flower buds will form on new twigs during the next growing season, and the flowers will flush normally).
Dead branches: can be removed any time of the year.
Proper tools are essential for satisfactory pruning (Fig.6). The choice of which tool to use depends largely on the size of branches to be pruned and the amount of pruning to be done. If possible, test a tool before you buy it to ensure it suits your specific needs. As with most things, higher quality often equates to higher cost.
Generally speaking, the smaller a branch is when pruned, the sooner the wound created will seal. Hand pruners are used to prune small branches (under 2.5 cm diameter) and many different kinds are available. Hand pruners can be grouped into by-pass or anvil styles based on the blade configuration. Anvil style pruners have a straight blade that cuts the branch against a small anvil or block as the handles are squeezed. By-pass pruners use a curved cutting blade that slides past a broader lower blade, much like a scissors. To prevent unnecessary tearing or crushing of tissues, it is best to use a by-pass style pruner. Left- or right-handed types can be purchased.
Slightly larger branches that cannot be cut with a hand pruner may be cut with small pruning saws (up to 10 cm) or lopping shears (up to 7 cm diameter) with larger cutting surfaces and greater leverage. Lopping shears are also available in by-pass and anvil styles.
For branches too large to be cut with a hand pruner or lopping shears, pruning saws must be used. Pruning saws differ greatly in handle styles, the length and shape of the blade, and the layout and type of teeth. Most have tempered metal blades that retain their sharpness for many pruning cuts. Unlike most other saws, pruning saws are often designed to cut on the "pull-stroke."
Electric and gas chain saws are preferred when pruning branches larger than about 10 cm. Chainsaws should be used only by qualified individuals. To avoid the need to cut branches greater than 10 cm diameter, prune when branches are small.
Pole pruners must be used to cut branches beyond reach. Generally, pruning heads can cut branches up to 4.4 cm diameter and are available in the by-pass and anvil styles. Once again, the by-pass type is preferred. For cutting larger branches, saw blades can be fastened directly to the pruning head, or a separate saw head can be purchased. Because of the danger of electrocution, pole pruners should not be used near utility lines except by qualified utility line clearance personnel.
To ensure that satisfactory cuts are made and to reduce fatigue, keep your pruning tools sharp and in good working condition. Hand pruners, lopping shears, and pole pruners should be periodically sharpened with a sharpening stone. Replacement blades are available for many styles. Pruning saws should be professionally sharpened or periodically replaced. To reduce cost, many styles have replaceable blades.
Tools should be clean and sanitized as well as sharp. Although sanitizing tools may be inconvenient and seldom practiced, doing so may prevent the spread of disease from infected to healthy trees on contaminated tools. Tools become contaminated when they come into contact with fungi, bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that cause disease in trees. Most pathogens need some way of entering the tree to cause disease, and fresh wounds are perfect places for infections to begin. Microorganisms on tool surfaces are easily introduced into susceptible trees when subsequent cuts are made. The need for sanitizing tools can be greatly reduced by pruning during the dormant season.
If sanitizing is necessary it should be practiced as follows: Before each branch is cut, sanitize pruning tools with either 70% denatured alcohol, or with liquid household bleach diluted 1 to 9 with water (1 part bleach, 9 parts water). Tools should be immersed in the solution, preferably for 1-2 minutes, and wood particles should be wiped from all cutting surfaces. Bleach is corrosive to metal surfaces, so tools should be thoroughly cleaned with soap and water after each use.
Tree sap, gums, and resins are the natural means by which trees combat invasion by pathogens. Although unsightly, sap flow from pruning wounds is not generally harmful; however, excessive "bleeding" can weaken trees.
When oaks or elms are wounded during a critical time of year (usually spring for oaks, or throughout the growing season for elms) -- either from storms, other unforeseen mechanical wounds, or from necessary branch removals -- some type of wound dressing should be applied to the wound. Do this immediately after the wound is created. In most other instances, wound dressings are unnecessary, and may even be detrimental. Wound dressings will not stop decay or cure infectious diseases. They may actually interfere with the protective benefits of tree gums and resins, and prevent wound surfaces from closing as quickly as they might under natural conditions. The only benefit of wound dressings is to prevent introduction of pathogens in the specific cases of Dutch elm disease and oak wilt.