Late February through March is the prime time for pruning most hardwood trees in Southeast Nebraska. Avoid pruning maple, willow, poplar, birch, hackberry, Kentucky coffeetree, black walnut, honeylocust, and elm until the late summer or early fall to avoid excessive “bleeding” or sap flow. The key when pruning is to prune in the winter while the trees are dormant, prior to new growth beginning in the spring.
Prune in the late winter when it is best for the trees. This way, the trees can begin healing the wound early in the spring while they are putting on new growth and before they get stressed from the hot, dry summer. It is also easier for us to prune trees when we can see all of the branches without leaves in the way.
When pruning a tree, do not prune more than one-third of the tree off in one growing season. The tree needs to retain enough leaf area to produce enough sugar to compensate for the loss of limbs. Also, do not cut off branches that are one-half the size of the trunk or larger. This is too large of a wound to leave on the tree; it won’t heal correctly and can lead to decay in the tree.
When we prune a tree, there is an order to what should be removed for the overall health of a tree.
- Remove any dead, dying, diseased, crowded, weakly attached, and low-vigor branches.
- Thin the crown for better light penetration and more airflow
- Remove lower branches so it is easier to mow, park, or walk underneath the tree
- Remove some of the higher branches to reduce the height of a tree
- Do not top a tree by shearing off the top of the tree.
- Topping a tree leads to unsightly, weakly attached limbs that have more problems than benefits
- It can also cause a great deal of shock to the tree due to the fact that all of the leaves were removed at once and the tree can’t build more food without leaves.
Good pruning cuts are essential to the healing process of tree limbs. Do not cut a branch off so you leave a stump on the tree. You want to cut back to the trunk. The best process for pruning is the 3-part pruning method. Start the first cut a few inches out from the trunk of the tree, cut upward and only cut 1/3 of the way through the branch. This cut is to eliminate the risk of tearing the bark down the trunk. The second cut should be further away from the tree than the first cut and should just simply cut the branch off the tree. The third and final cut should be up next to the trunk. This final cut should be made outside of the branch bark ridge and the branch collar, which is where the branch is attached to the tree. Usually you can see a ridge where these two appear on the tree.
If you take the time to make good pruning cuts and you prune at the right time of the year and don’t remove more than one-third of the tree in a growing season, your tree will thrive following some pruning. Sometimes we have trees that haven’t been pruned for a while and have a great deal of pruning to be done. With these trees, prune over a period of multiple years to ensure you don’t cut too much off in one growing season.