Here’s The Best Time To Prune Large Trees (Pruning Tips)

Large trees trimmed on ground

You won’t be the only one weeping if you prune your large trees at the wrong time of year. Large trees are known to ‘weep’ sap out of large cuts if their branches are cut during their active growing season. When actually is the best time to prune large trees?

Always prune large branches from trees during their dormant season from mid-winter to early spring. This discourages resin, or sap from flowing from the tree cuts. Large coniferous trees may be pruned any time of the year, but it’s best to prune during their dormant season as well.

A well-pruned tree has a big impact on its longevity, appearance, and structure. Read on to learn how to tell if your trees are dormant and for more pruning tips!

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How To Know When To Prune Your Large Tree

In North America, the late fall and winter months are considered the dormancy period for most trees. The temperatures are cooler, there is less sunshine, and trees are not actively growing new leaves and needles.

It is preferred to make all large cuts to big trees during this dormancy period, no matter what species.

You’re in luck if the trees around you are deciduous, meaning their leaves fall off seasonally because that’s the most obvious clue your tree is dormant! Your trees are in dormancy during this period when the leaves have dropped off for the season.

During the dormant season, the transportation of groundwater from the roots to the canopy has mostly ceased, and the leaves are no longer converting sunlight to energy to grow. It’s like the factory has shut down for the season, giving us time to prune!

Coniferous trees, or trees with needles and cones, are also likely dormant at the same time as their deciduous counterparts.

According to the United States Forest Service, you can prune conifers at any time of year. However, it’s important to note that pruning during the spring and summer growing seasons will likely cause the dripping of sap from branches.

Dripping sap from your trees is not desirable for a few reasons.

First, it’s messy; sticky sap is difficult to remove from cars, sidewalks, tools, etc. Secondly, the open wound is more likely to attract insects and pathogens to your tree.

There are times when pruning during the growing season can’t be avoided. In these instances, there are things to do to help protect your tree from making a sappy mess. Try using Bonide Bonide (BND225) – Tree Pruning Sealer for a fast, easy, and effective dressing designed to aid in the healing of any kind of tree wound.

You Can Trim Old Tree Branches Any Time Of Year

Trees in winter landscape

Pruning old and deadwood is a must-do, especially when removing it from large trees. The large dead branches often will split and hang vicariously above one’s head. These are often called “widow-makers”, for good reason.

Dead branches are easy to notice during the active growing season because there are no leaves growing on them or they have turned brown. This wood is no longer actively using the tree’s resources, therefore will not release flowing sap when cut.

During the dormant season, deciduous trees’ branches and stems are all visible, so it is easy to see the shape of the tree. It is also easy to see where there may be branches rubbing on one another and needing pruning. However, it can be more difficult to tell right away if the branch is dead. A couple of quick observations will give you the answer.

First, if it is dead, the wood will often crack and break off from the tree easily. Second, the bark will look discolored or dried out. Thirdly, there will be no buds or active growing tips on the stems from where the leaves will grow from.

Another common way to tell if the wood is alive or dead is to do the “scratch test”. Simply use your fingernail or blade and scrape away the outer bark from a small branch. If it’s green underneath, it’s alive. If it’s brown and dry, the wood is dead.

Prune Certain Early Flowering Trees In The Early Spring

Single blossoming tree in spring on rural meadow

Common spring-blooming understory tree species, such as Redbud and Dogwood trees, should be pruned just after flowering to preserve spring blossoms. By pruning immediately after their bloom period, new growth will be encouraged that will form new flower buds for the next year.

If there are large branches that need to be pruned off, however, it is a good rule of thumb to still prune those branches off in the tree’s dormant period.

Redbud and Dogwood species are commonly planted too close to homes and often need heavy pruning when they start getting too large. By following these tips, your trees will remain beautiful and full of blossoms each year.

If you’d like to learn more, take a look at our guide for pruning flowering cherry trees, which are ornamental trees!

Late Blooming Trees Should Be Pruned In The Dormant Season

Trees without leaves on a background of blue sky and clouds. Late autumn, sunny day.

Have you noticed trees blooming in the summer or fall? Examples of this could be Golden Raintree, Tulip tree, Sourwood, Crepe myrtle, and Fig trees. It is very common for later blooming species to grow their blossoms on new spring growth.

Pruning your later flowering trees in the dormant season will encourage more light penetration throughout the canopy. This could result in more light reaching fruit-bearing parts of the tree, and more blossoms.

If pruning involves too many cuts on shoots and small branches, it could instead cause excessive sprouting of new shoots, also called ‘suckers’ or ‘water sprouts’. These suckers will instead hinder light penetration and use up valuable nutrients that could have been powering flowers and fruits.

Prune Large Fruit Trees In The Late Winter

Winter evening in the forest - fairytale landscape

Pruning fruit trees is an activity many growers anticipate with joy or dread. Caring for fruit trees can be a lot of work since they need annual pruning to keep them vigorous, healthy, and productive.

While care should be given to pruning fruit trees during their dormant season, additional care should be given if you live in a very cold region. Freeze damage can occur to freshly pruned fruit trees if pruned too early in the winter.

Studies have shown that late-autumn and early winter pruning decreases fruit trees’ cold-hardiness. Since some trees are more fragile than others to cold temperatures, this is an important detail to keep in mind!

Additionally, frost injury on pruned trees appears mainly in bark and wood around the pruning wounds. This suggests that the frost damage was a result of reduced cold hardiness due to wounding.

Many plants can resist freezing due to a plant phenomenon called supercooling, but when the tissues are wounded, ice formation can penetrate the exposed plant cells causing damage and death. 

Pruning your fruit trees in the late winter will protect them from getting damaged from heavy winter freezes. A late winter pruning is best because they will soon be out of the dormant season and will be able to quickly recover from the open cuts during the upcoming growing season.

Orchard workers have reported that dormant-pruned fruit trees increase the percentage of blossoms that set fruit. That is another great reason to prune during the dormant season!

Some orchards do light pruning during the summer, but spray pesticides on the fruit trees that protect it.

It should be added however that cutting back the “water shoots” or “suckers” can be done during the growing season without negative effects. In fact, by removing these shoots, even in the summer, plant energy and nutrients will be redirected to active growth and fruit production of the rest of the tree.

Can I Prune Large Trees During The Growing Months?

Yes, but it is better to remove a small amount of live foliage often, rather than a lot all at once. Read that twice.

Consider the scenario of a large tree with a lot of new growth weighing down a branch that you keep walking into, for example. Simply snip off the ends of the branches. This will remove some weight from the branch and hopefully lift it so it’s not hanging in a walking path.

Light pruning during the summer months shouldn’t cause much harm to your tree if done with a clean blade and so long as you’re not taking off large branches.

Hedging is another example of pruning that can be done in the growing months. However, this is not often a practice done on large trees.

To learn more about tree branches and how they actually grow, take a look at our info guide on why branches don’t grow on the bottom of trees here!

4 Tips For Pruning Large Trees

Large fruit tree pruning

Getting started with pruning projects can feel overwhelming, especially if the trees haven’t been maintained for several years. Understanding when the best time is to approach the job at hand will help you plan for your success! Read on to learn tips as you begin to plan.

1. Call A Professional To Prune Your Trees

For large, dangerous cuts or trees, call a professional. In these cases, special equipment may be needed, like climbing gear, heavy chainsaws, ropes, and pullies to keep people and structures safe.

2. Understand Pruning Techniques And Methods

There are a variety of pruning cuts, each that will produce different growth responses in plants.

If you’re a visual learner and have a global appreciation for trees, the book Tree Pruning: A Worldwide Photo Guide is filled with instructional photos of trees around the world. The book covers branch anatomy, wildlife, safety, trees, and people, and displays over 150 photographs, with a variety of diagrams.

3. Use The Right Tools

For trees that can be pruned safely by the home gardener, the importance of having the right tools cannot be emphasized enough. The most common tools used are hand shears, lopping shears, pole pruners, and saws.

Hand Shears Or Hand Pruners

There are a few different types of pruners to choose from, bypass, anvil, or ratchet pruners. Bypass pruners are generally preferred, but all types can cut branches up to around ½ inch in diameter.

For the serious gardener needing a pair of quality bypass pruners, we’d recommend the Felco 2 Bypass Pruner and Leather Holster. When taken care of, this quality pruner will serve all your hand pruning needs.

A more economical “look-alike” is the Gonicc 8” Professional Sharp Bypass Pruning Shears. This item can cut up to ¾ inch in diameter tree branches and has a sap groove design to keep the shears from sticking.

While bypass pruners are a great choice for hand pruning, they are more difficult to use on dead wood. For this job, the Felco Felco Pruning Shears are a better choice. This high-performance anvil pruner has a narrow-pointed anvil blade that allows for closer cuts to the trunk than other anvil pruner models.

Ratcheting anvil pruners are a good choice for a gardener who doesn’t have a strong grip strength. Instead of cutting all at once, you will ‘pump’ the handle to ratchet down the blade and eventually make the cut.

Lopping Shears

There are so many choices when it comes to lopping shears. You will want to consider the length of the handle you need, along with how much weight you can handle in a tool and how often you’ll use them, so you know how much to put into it.

Loppers are used for medium-large branches 2 ½ inches or less. We’ll point you to the two types of lopping shears so you can be confident you’re getting a quality product that will support the health of your trees with clean cuts that will heal quickly.

The Felco Pruning Loppers would be considered the “Cadillac” of lopper shears. Notice there are a few different sizes of handles to choose from, all ergonomically designed.

Pole Pruners

Pole pruners are fun to use because with the long pole you’re able to cut 1 ¼ inch branches high above you in the canopy standing from ground level.

It makes a big difference having a quality tool with a sharp blade to do the job well because even though you’re on the ground, it still feels like a balancing act! In those moments, every movement and decision point to cut matters and you will want to get it right!

The Jameson PH-34-PKG Tree Pruner Kit is made in the USA and has the largest cutting capacity on the market with a true 1 ¾ inch hook opening.

Saws

For larger tree branches, you might be considering a power tool. For jobs too big for a pole pruner, but not quite worthy of a powerful chainsaw, consider getting a power pole electric chainsaw.

Scotts Outdoor Power Tools Electric Pole Saw is a good choice for beginners who may be shy around gas-powered tools. This corded, electric pole chainsaw features an automatic oiling system with an oil level window and a tool-free tensioner chain adjustment.

To choose the best gas-powered chainsaw for you to make those bigger cuts with, be sure to measure how big the diameter of the largest branches is. This will help you determine what size bar you will need on your saw.

It is recommended to shop for chainsaws in person because you will want to find a well-balanced machine that is comfortable for you. It needs to be powerful enough to do the job, but light enough for you to handle it safely.

4. Clean Your Blades

Blossoming trees in spring

Your pruning tools could be carrying something nasty on the blade, even though you can’t see it! It is recommended to always clean your blades between trees to prevent the spread of anything harmful to your other trees.

It is a simple, but effective practice that you should get into the habit of doing. An easy DIY method is to put some ethanol or 70% isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle and squirt some on the blade before moving on to the next tree.

The Integrated Pest Management Department of the University of Missouri states that bleach could also work but will need to be diluted to a 10% solution before applying it to blades. It can be corrosive to blades, so be sure to give a good rinse with water after application.

That’s A Wrap!

Trees add so much health to our lives, we need to be stewards of their health as well. I hope you found some helpful information that will help you determine when you should be pruning your trees and other useful tips.

References

Bedker, Peter J. How to prune trees. Vol. 95, no. 1. Government Printing Office, 2016.

Li, K. T., Lakso, A. N., Piccioni, R., & Robinson, T. (2003). Summer pruning effects on fruit size, fruit quality, return bloom and fine root survival in apple trees. The Journal of Horticultural Science and Biotechnology78(6), 755-761.

Norainiratna Badrulhisham, Noriah Othman, Knowledge in Tree Pruning for Sustainable Practices in Urban Setting: Improving Our Quality of Life, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, Volume 234, 2016, Pages 210-217

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