6 Reasons To Prune Your Pine Tree (And When To Do It)

Young pine tree growing on the edge of the forest.

Pine trees add color to the landscape all year long and provide yards with shade on hot summer days. These evergreen trees require less pruning than deciduous trees, but there may be a few reasons to break out the pruning shears and get to work on your pine tree.

You need to prune your pine tree if there are dead or damaged branches. Pruning pine treese promotes bushier branches and increases trunk diameter, which can help with long term growth. It’s prudent to have your pine tree pruned if it’s interfering with roads, buildings, or utility lines.

We’ll go over all the reasons to prune your pine tree and when the best time is to do it. We’ll also give you some tips on how to properly prune your pine tree. Let’s get to it!

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What Kind Of Pine Trees Need Pruning?

There are so many different types of pine trees out there – white pine, red pine, jack pine, ponderosa pine. Which ones need pruning and which ones can be left alone?

The reality is that any type of pine tree can be pruned if needed. The specific species does not matter. With that being said, some pine trees are easier to prune than others.

According to Clemson University, the height of pine trees can vary from 4 feet to over 150 feet. Pine trees that are already towering over 20 feet are going to be more difficult to prune than smaller pines.

Some pine trees (such as the loblolly pine) will actually lose their lower branches as they grow older, reducing the need for pruning near the bottom. Others have branches that touch the ground, requiring a little more attention when pruning.

A lot of the time pruning will depend on what you are looking to get out of your landscape pines. Do you want them to remain small? Or are the branches getting a little too close to your home? 

Either way, there are a couple of different reasons why you may want to prune your pine trees. Pruning even helps fix some of the reasons why your pine tree isn’t growing!

Why You May Need To Prune Your Pine Trees

Evergreens like pine trees require less pruning than deciduous trees. The reason is that pine trees have terminal buds, not lateral buds. 

Terminal buds mean that pines only grow at the tip of each branch and at the very tip of the tree as opposed to growing bushier or growing extra branches that poke out at odd angles from the trunk.

All pine trees follow the same basic growing structure, so there are no surprises during the growing season.

On a side note, know that pruning your pine tree will not damage it or cause stunted growth. Multiple studies like the one reported in the Journal of Forest Ecology and Management have found that pruning has no effect on long-term growth as long as it is done correctly.

Let’s check out the details around when you need to snip new growth and when to leave your pines alone.

Young fir tree growing in the forest

Dead Or Damaged Pine Branches Should Be Pruned

Pine trees show signs of stress in different ways. The needles may turn brown or the branches may droop.

Dying pine tree branches can be caused by several different things:

  • Poor nutrients
  • Lack of water
  • Too much water
  • Pest insect
  • Tree affliction

The most obvious sign that a pine branch is dead is if there is no new growth in the spring or summer. Usually, the needles will turn brown as well.

Damaged branches can range from obvious to barely noticeable. If a branch is cracked from a windstorm, it’s pretty obvious it needs to be pruned off.

However, branches that are quietly damaged by pests or afflictions may be harder to catch.

Look for some of these signs of damaged pine tree branches:

  • Sticky needles: We expect a little sap to coat pines and their needles, but when there is so much sap that the needles are sticking together, it’s a sign that the branch is damaged.
  • Drippy sap: If you’re noticing sap dripping off the pine tree or coating the trunk, it’s a sign that there’s some kind of damage happening to the branches
  • Lack of growth: If terminals are dead, the pine tree will cease growing on the branch. This is usually due to a pest of some kind feeding on the terminal buds.

Damaged branches may recover over the following couple of years. Keep a close eye on whether or not there is new growth in the spring. If there isn’t, it’s a good bet that the branch is dead and should be pruned. Also, just an FYI, pine trees sometimes still need water in the winter.

Prune Pine Trees To Slow Their Growth

Some landscapes can support giant pine trees like the white, spruce, or slash pine that can reach up to 100 feet. However, many yards are just too small to have these massive sentinels towering over the neighborhood.

You can always go with a smaller species of pine like the Mugo pine or a dwarf variety like the dwarf Japanese Black or Scotch. 

However, if you inherit a yard with a species of pine tree that will grow to massive heights, you can use pruning to slow the growth rate and keep it small as long as possible.

In the spring, check your pine trees for new growth. The new growth will typically be lighter green in color and happen only on the tips of the branches or the top of the tree. This new growth is called a candle.

According to the University of Minnesota, you can remove up to two-thirds of the candle while pruning. 

Just make sure not to prune the entire candle! It’s also not recommended to prune the top of the pine tree as this can cause the tree to lose its pyramidal shape.

You can use something like Fiskar’s Gardening Tools Bypass Pruning Shears to prune new growth, but make sure you do not accidentally clip needles from old growth. This can cause them to turn brown.

Pruning will slow the growth of the pine tree, keeping it at a desirable height for a longer period.

If you have a potted pine tree that you want to keep small, take a look at our guide on the the best soil for pine trees in containers that will give you some more detailed tips!

Prune Pine Trees To Keep Them Neat And Tidy

When deciduous trees become unruly and start sprouting new branches, pruning is a way to control where and when branches sprout from the trunk.

For pine trees, this kind of pruning is done less often but can be incredibly useful when you want the pine tree to obtain a certain shape.

Pruning pine trees can help:

  • Promote bushier branches: If your pine tree is looking a little sparse, you can use pruning to promote a bushier tree with thicker growth. It’s recommended to do this by hand rather than using pruning shears.
  • Increase trunk diameter: According to an article in the Electronic Journal of Polish Agricultural Universities, pruning pine trees can result in an increased trunk diameter over the years.
  • Make room for landscaping beneath pine trees: if your pine tree branches reach the ground but you’d rather have a few ornamental hostas or peonies beneath it, prune the bottom branches to make room.
  • Reduce pine afflictions: Pruning your pine tree can prevent unwanted sicknesses that can cause ugly scars, gulls, and growths on your pine tree.

A study reported in the Journal of California Agriculture found that six years after pruning sugar pine trees, the number of infections on pruned trees was reduced when compared to unpruned trees. 

One thing to note about pruning the bottom branches of your pine tree is that these branches will never grow back. 

Once the branches are cut, the pine tree will only focus on continuing to grow taller and wider. It will not expend energy on regrowing branches. Before you break out the saw, make sure this is what you really want!

If you plan to use the space under your pine tree for landscaping, you can read about the best plants to grow under your pine tree here.

Scene of beautiful sunset at summer pine forest with trees and grass, landscape

Pruning Pines Improves The Tree’s Strength

Pine trees have somewhat of a bad reputation for being easily blown over in high winds or after heavy ice storms.

It’s for good reason, too. Pine trees usually have a shallow root system. Even if the root system is extensive, it’s still mostly located within the top 6-12 inches of soil.

In addition to having a shallow root system, pine trees are evergreen. This means that the weight of their needles is a constant burden that does not get shed in the fall like deciduous trees.

All of this comes together to create a perfect storm.

What can be done about a tree that is naturally prone to falling over in a storm? One of the answers is to prune your pine tree. 

Simply put, pruning your pine tree for any reason can help it survive a storm. Pruning prevents pines from toppling over for several reasons:

  • Pruning dead pine branches will reduce dead weight
  • Pruning new growth promotes bushier branches, increasing wind resistance
  • Pruning increases the width of annual growth rings, promoting a thicker, stronger trunk

If you’re worried about yelling “timber!” every time the wind blows, then consider pruning your pine tree to promote better, stronger growth.

Do you need to cut down a tree before the storm gets to it? Don’t be sad! This is one of many valid reasons to cut down your pine tree.

Pruning Your Pine Tree Helps Manage Wildlife

Wildlife can be pleasant and relaxing to watch. Squirrels hopping around on the ground, deer munching on grass, and birds chirping in the trees.

However, when wildlife gets a little, well, WILD and starts damaging our yards, gardens, and buildings, it is not so relaxing.

Pine trees provide plenty of animals with homes and cover:

  • Birds
  • Mice & Rats
  • Moles & Voles
  • Snakes
  • Raccoons
  • Opossums
  • Skunks
  • Squirrels
  • Insects
  • Porcupines

While a few of these animals aren’t bad to have around, others are less desirable. 

The two biggest reasons why animals flock to pine trees is because of cover and food. 

Branches close to the ground provide heavy cover for both predator and prey animals. Pine trees also provide many animals with a source of food in the winter. Porcupines will chew on the bark, deer will eat the twigs, and squirrels will eat the seeds from the pine cones.

Pruning can help manage the wildlife population in your yard, either encouraging or discouraging certain species.

To eliminate cover for wildlife, prune the bottom branches of your pine tree so that it is open. This will minimize the chances of mice, rats, snakes, opossums, and raccoons making a home in your pine tree.

If your goal is to encourage birds to move in, try pruning new growth to promote bushier branches. This will give birds better cover from predators and give them more options for nest locations.

Whether you want more or less wildlife, you can use pruning to get the job done!

Prune Pines That Interfere With Buildings, Roads, Or Wires

Landscape trees are wonderful to watch grow. If you’re around them long enough, you may watch them go from a young sapling to a full-grown tree.

While there’s always a little sentimental value with landscape trees, there are times when they become a little too big for the yard and need to be pruned.

Pine trees that are starting to interfere with buildings, roads, or utility lines should be pruned

Some examples of this are:

  • Branches that are near rooftops or windows
  • Branches that are looming over the house or walkway
  • Pine trees that are approaching telephone, cable, or electric lines
  • Branches that loom over roads or driveways

Depending on where you live, pine trees that are interfering with utility lines or roads will be taken care of by the township or county where you live. Of course, this isn’t always the case.

For the other two instances, it’s mainly left up to the landowner to take care of their own trees. 

The downside to pruning pine trees is that you can only prune two-thirds of the new growth. This might help for a few years, but eventually, the tree branch will continue to grow. 

At this point, you’ll need to decide whether or not you can live with a lop-sided pine tree or if you’d rather cut it down entirely. 

If you’re not sure what to do, you can always seek out a local arborist or ask a professional what their thoughts are.

If you decide to prune the pine tree branches, consider using a pole saw such as Greenworks 40V 8-inch Cordless Pole Saw. It comes with a battery and charger included – no need to worry about getting tangled in an electric cord!

The Greenworks pole saw can reach up to a maximum of 11 feet. If the troublesome branches are above this height, it may be time to seek out professional help.

If you’re interested in the specific lifespan of a pine tree, take a peak at our piece on how long pine trees take to grow here!

Young fir tree growing in the forest

How To Properly Prune Your Pine Tree

We touched on this a little bit earlier, but it warrants going over again in more detail. Pruning your pine tree at the wrong time or using the wrong tools can cause branch die-back.

Pruning New Growth

For simple, yearly pruning, it’s recommended to use your hands to prune pine trees as opposed to tools.

Locate the new growth, called the candle, and break off the new growth using your fingers. Do not prune more than two-thirds of the new growth and do not prune old growth.

If you don’t want to do it by hand, you can use pruning shears. However, be careful not to accidentally cut any needles from the new growth which you are not cutting off. This can damage the new growth, turning the needles brown.

Removing Entire Branches

When you want to remove entire branches from the pine tree, first identify where the branch is located on the tree.

If it’s low enough, use a hand saw or chainsaw to cut the branch. If it’s too high to reach, consider using a pole saw to trim off the branch.

Remember, branches that are trimmed off will not grow back.

When Is The Best Time To Prune Pine Trees?

Pine trees aren’t like most trees when it comes to pruning. Even when compared to other evergreens like spruce and fir, pine tree pruning is different.

Instead of pruning in the late winter, you’ll want to prune pine trees in early to mid-summer, around June and July

This is the time of year when new growth is far enough along that you can see where to prune, but not so far along that pruning will slow or stunt growth.

Now, if your trimming pine tree tree branches that you suspect are dying, try to prune a bit later in the summer or early fall so that pests and any afflictions don’t spread from branch to branch as easily. Ultimately it won’t make a big difference, but it’s something to keep in mind!

When in doubt, contact a local arborist to get a better idea of how much to prune from your pine tree.

Is It Possible To Over Prune Your Pine Tree?

If you prune too much of your pine tree, is it a goner?

While pruning can promote better health for your pine tree, it is possible to prune too much. Pruning too much involves cutting too much new growth or cutting into old growth.

According to the University of Nebraska, pruning beyond new growth and into old growth will delay the formation of new buds for a full year.

The best practice is to cut no more than two-thirds of new growth each year. If you’re hesitant about how much to prune, go with less than you think. It’s better to cut too little than too much.

If you’re wondering what to do with the branches you pruned, here are some ideas of what to do with pine wood!

That’s All For Now!

Pine trees are an oasis in the winter, providing a splash of color when all else is grey and white. While these evergreens don’t require a lot of maintenance, there are a few reasons why you might want to prune them.

Now, for a quick recap!

Some of the reasons to prune your pine tree include:

  • Dead or damaged branches
  • To slow growth rate
  • To keep a desired shape
  • Improve structural strength
  • Manage wildlife
  • When branches are interfering with buildings, roads, or utility lines

Local arborists and tree professionals are a great resource when you’re not sure about whether or not you should prune your pine tree.

All in all, most pine trees do not require pruning. However, yearly pruning can help in certain situations and will, in general, promote a happy and healthy pine tree!

References

Amateis, R. L., & Burkhart, H. E. (2011, December). Growth of young loblolly pine trees following pruning. Forest Ecology and Management, 262(12), 2338-2343.

Giefing, D. F., Jonasz, K., & Wesoly, W. (2004). The Response of Thick-Branched Pine Trees To Pruning. Electronic Journal of Polish Agricultural Universities, 7(2).

Makinen, H., & Colin, F. (1999, September). Predicting the number, death, and self-pruning of branches in Scots pine. Canadian Journal of Forest Research, 29(8), 1225-1236.

Moreno-Fernandez, D., Sanchez-Gonzalez, M., Alvarez-Gonzalez, J. G., Hevia, A., Majada, J. P., Canellas, I., & Gea-Izquierdo, G. (2014, March 14). Response to the interaction of thinning and pruning of pine species in Mediterranean mountains. European Journal of Forest Research, 133, 833-843.

O’Hara, K., Grand, L. A., & Whitcomb, A. A. (2010, January 01). Pruning reduces blister rust in sugar pine with minimal effects on tree growth. California Agriculture, 64(1), 31-36.

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