Tree Pruning, How to Prune Tree Branches Correctly

The first step in pruning a tree, before making and cuts to change the shape or size of a tree, is to remove any dead, diseased or broken branches. If removing a branch completely, it’s important to make the cut correctly so as to not cause any further damage to the tree.

Thinner branches around the thickness of your thumb or smaller, that is with a diameter of 20mm (3/4”) or less, can be removed with a sharp pair of secateurs or a two handed pruning lopper. Thicker branches can be carefully cut off with a pruning saw.

When removing branches, DO NOT make the pruning cut flush with the trunk or parent branch as this will damage the branch collar.

diagram how to prune tree branches 3-cut method

At the base of every branch is a distinct bulge where it connects to the trunk of the tree or an older branch, known as the branch collar.

The branch collar is comprised of interlocking layers of cells of the branch and the trunk, and it plays an important role in healing the wound left by the pruning cut, sealing it off to reduce decay and prevent the entry of disease pathogens. A correctly made pruning cut leaves the branch collar intact and undamaged.

On some trees the branch collars are large and clearly defined, making them easy to spot, while in other trees they may be harder to distinguish, but they’re always there, so always make branch removal cuts with the intention of preserving the branch collar.

Removing Branches Using Secateurs or Loppers

Thin branches can be removed with secateurs of loppers in a single cut. Most secateurs are rated for a branch thickness of 20mm (3/4”) and the largest ones made for gardeners with large hands can handle branches up to 25mm (1”) if you have sufficient hand strength to make the cut.

Secateurs are one-handed tools and you can get a bit of extra force squeezing with the second hand, but they have their limits. Loppers are basically larger two-handed versions of secateurs, requiring much less effort and strength to cut thicker branches. They have a branch thickness rating which is related to the length of their handles and any mechanisms which impart mechanical advantage, such as with cantilever or ratcheting loppers.

To make the cut, place the cutting blade side of the secateurs or loppers towards the side of the branch crown when making the cut, this prevents the flat part of the blade crushing the bark and plant tissue.

diagram blade direction when pruning

Removing Branches With a Pruning Saw

When removing large branches with a pruning saw, three cuts are made to prevent tearing off the bark and damaging the tree as the branch comes off.

  1. Undercut the branch a few inches away from the trunk to prevent bark tearing. Only cut part way through the bottom of the branch.
  2. Move a short distance away from the first cut, further out on the branch and cut al the way through to remove the entire branch. This will eliminate the weight of the branch, allowing you to make the final pruning cut. If the falling branch tears the bark off the trees as it drops, the bark tear will stop at the first cut.
  3. Start the third pruning cut on the outside edge of the branch-bark ridge and cut through the branch to the outside edge of the collar swelling on the underside of the branch. Remove only the branch; do not damage the trunk or branch collar.

When removing tree branches, don’t ever cut the branch flush with the trunk or parent limb, be sure to always leave a short stub, to preserve the branch collar so the tree can heal over the wound more easily.

12 Comments

  1. Mrs Patricia naylor says:

    Hi Angelo, I’m in a bit of a quandary,two of my fruit trees are fruiting at the moment (July N.E. England uk) I have seen cancer on the stems but clean growth after the canker with fruit on. Do I prune back to beginning of the branch removing the fruit which is growing . Or leave till after harvest and cut back then including clean growth .

    1. Angelo (admin) says:

      I would prune after harvest as the weather will be warmer and drier, minimizing potential entry of disease into pruning cuts. cut back into healthy wood, but sterilize your pruning equipment first in case you’ve cut into diseased wood previously, I use a mixture of 70% methylated spirits with 30% water in a spray bottle, some people use a 10% bleach solution-90% water mix for the same purpose.

  2. Laura Joshua says:

    My fig tree produced many figs in July and August, but come September no figs were produced. Its very hot in North Texas. Some days in treble digits. Now down to double digits. I water my tree about every other day. So is it time for it to stop producing fruits?

    1. Angelo (admin) says:

      Using my season converter to convert months to seasons, July and August in the Northern hemisphere is mid to late summer, which is when figs fruit. September is the start of autumn where you are, and figs will stop producing at that time, so you can hope you get enough warm weather to finish ripening any figs that may be left on the tree.

  3. Hello and thanks for providing this information on cutting branches. I have a mulberry tree that suffered substantial winter damage and the bark on some branches has died 360 degrees around the branch. It was so mushy all I had to do was rub it away, exposing the underlying wood. A) will these branches ever regain their bark or should I remove them? B) if I should remove them, when would be the best time to do so?

    1. Angelo (admin) says:

      Once the branches have lost their bark all round, they’re ringbarked and will die, so prune them off in late winter.

  4. It was awesome! I have a friend who has been wanting to get rid of some branches off his tree but didn’t know how. So I showed him your article and he said it was great! You are a really good writer and we want to thank you for the valuable information you shared with us. Hi Would love to read more about this topic 🙂

    1. Angelo (admin) says:

      Thanks, you’re welcome! 🙂

  5. Jo says:

    How hard can I prune back a 50 year old orange tree???

    I have given it a light cut back, but a friend has told me to get the chain saw & prune it to just below head height leaving only 5 main outer branches with an open center

    1. Angelo (admin) says:

      Hi Jo, a 50-year-old citrus tree, that’s impressive! The average life expectancy of citrus trees is 30-35 years, see my article How Long Do Fruit Trees Live?

      Cutting any tree to a stump (coppicing) or back to a trunk (pollarding) are extreme pruning methods that are used on only on trees that tolerate such heavy pruning. It does stress the tree, and will either cause lots of regrowth, or kill the tree outright if it’s not strong enough to recover, and therefore should never be carried out on a weak, sick or really old tree.

      I’ve heard many cases of people pollarding their overgrown citrus, with their citrus surviving and putting on lots of vigorous new growth, forming a new canopy. This would be done in spring, when the tree is actively growing.

      Pruning to head-height and leaving the main scaffold branches isn’t as drastic, but still a major stressor for a tree. I wouldn’t recommend taking any more than 1/3 off an old tree each year. If you really wanted to lower the canopy a lot, just prune one of the five branches to head height, wait till it regrows, and then prune the regrowth to the right shape and size as described in the article How to Prune a Fruit Tree, Step By Step to produce good branching. Once that is grown and trained sufficiently, with plenty of leaves and branches, do the next main branch. You might get two branches pruned each year through from early spring to early autumn this way in a warm temperate climate.

      If using a chainsaw, make sure it can make clean cuts, and use the three-cut method described in this article. I find that a simple and affordable, hand-operated bow saw is more than adequate for pruning almost any fruit tree and definitely any citrus tree. Hope this helps! 🙂

      1. Jo says:

        Thank you for your reply

  6. Jo says:

    Would appreciate an answer Angelo

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