The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Pruning young trees

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

As the days get warmer we are reminded of the wonderful coolness provided by a quality shade tree. Plus where would you hang a hammock without a sturdy shade tree. But trees need a good start to remain vigorous and virile.

So, how can we help? Proper pruning, along with regular watering, is a vital part of young tree maintenance. How a young tree is pruned can determine how well it stands up to wind and ice as it ages. Pruning is an ongoing process involving yearly evaluation and planning. It requires decisions on what to prune, when to prune, and whether to prune at all.

With newly planted trees limit pruning to removal of dead and broken branches and the correction of competing central leaders. Begin training trees 2-3 years after planting. The popular notion of removing branches solely due to the reduced root system of a newly planted tree is just down right wrong and really doesn't make sense. Branches are not burdensome parasites sucking the life out of the tree. (Can you tell this is one of my pet peeves?) The branches contain food reserves and vital hormones. Branches are the framework for the green leaves required for the plant to make its own food for root and stem growth so it can become established. If the tree does not have the energy to keep the branches it has due to a reduced root system, it will clearly tell you with branch death.

Sometimes trees will develop competing central leaders that can lead to structural failures. It's important to deal with this problem early in a tree's life. Generally this competition is fairly obvious when two or more central branches are the same size and length. Pick one branch as a dominant then reduce the length or remove competing leaders. This may take a few years of corrective pruning to solve so as not to remove more than one third of the tree at one time.

Another key aspect to pruning young trees involves what we don't prune. Leave lower branches on the tree for the first few years after transplanting. Research has shown that the presence of low branches helps the tree to develop a stronger and larger trunk than if the branches are removed. Lower branches also protect the trunk from sun scald and mechanical injury. Leave the temporary lower branches on the tree until they reach one half to one inch in diameter. Some trees due to their location near sidewalks or streets eventually have to be limbed high, but consider leaving lower branches on some landscape trees. You may just like the look and the added branches can help as a windbreak or screen.

Other tips on training young trees:

  • Always leave about two thirds of the tree height with live branches. No lollipop trees.
  • Concentrate efforts on removing crossing, rubbing, broken, diseased, and narrow-angled branches.
  • Do not over-thin the canopy so branches resemble lion's tails.
  • Remove water sprouts and suckers from tree base.

Remember do not prune trees in public areas including parks and along city streets. Don't remove lower branches because you think someday they may cause a problem because sometimes pruning means knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

Tree pruning is an on-going process throughout a tree's life.

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