By Derek Lirange

I have had the opportunity to prune a lot of trees and teach a lot of people how to prune trees. Most of my experience is in pruning small street trees, about 20 feet tall or less. Pruning street trees is a specific style of pruning and pruning trees when they’re small is only one step in caring for a tree throughout it’s life, however, it provides an important start. You can still work on the ground and reach most of what your want to cut back without too much difficulty. It’s fun, it’s relatively easy, and it makes a difference in the long term. If you want to get in on the fun at your own home here are five basic tips to help you get started.

Safety First

Pruning trees can be dangerous work but you can stay safe with the proper equipment and a bit of precaution. For equipment, the most important thing, in my opinion, is to wear a thick pair of gloves when pruning to protect your hands from the blade of your pruning tools. Other protective gear might be as simple as pants or long sleeves to protect you from scrapes, safety glasses to keep branches away from your eyes, especially if you’re pruning branches on the interior of the canopy. You should consider a helmet if you’re working on limbs over your head, and hearing protection if you’re using any sort of motorized tool.

As far as safety practices go some simple things go a long way. Keep your free hand away from the blade of your tool. Stand to the side of your cut and keep yourself away from the path of a falling limb. And check your surroundings to make sure that the limb isn’t going to fall on anything or anyone else.

Bonus – Calling in the Cavalry

My final tip is this, don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you’re not confident you know what you’re doing or you find that a job is just too big, call in professional help. There are a lot of skilled people who would be happy to offer you their services. But do yourself a favor and go with someone reputable. You can find certified professionals online at the websites of the International Society of Arboriculture and Massachusetts Arborists Association. You can search for people in your area and see who they work for. If they have put their contact information on their profile they would welcome your call or email.

The Right Stuff

Having the right equipment is going to make your life a lot easier. You should have a pair of bypass style pruning shears, a small saw (about 6 inches is perfect), and a pair of long handled pruning shears. Those are the basics and will take you pretty far for small jobs. As you get more ambitious sometimes a larger saw is necessary, a 13 inch, curved arborists saw or a reciprocating saw with a blade for wood will take care of larger limbs. And for those hard to reach limbs a combination pole saw/lopping tool will help. One precaution when using a pole saw though, you lose your ability to be quite as precise when using these tools.

If you want to make working in the landscape your hobby and you plan to be outside working frequently it is worth investing in some of the higher end tools, they will last longer and generally provide you with a better experience as you work. But if you’re only going to use the tools once a year, you can definitely get away with purchasing something a little less expensive.

Follow the Process

Once you’re equipped to do the work safely you should make a plan, and the following steps will help you to put your plan together.

  1. Start by removing dead and broken branches

  2. Pick a leader, or leaders, depending on the form of the tree, and remove branches competing for dominance.

  3. Remove branches that are poorly attached, growing in undesirable directions, or rubbing against another branch.

  4. Pick branches which will someday be the lowest branches on the tree, these are called scaffold branches.

  5. Remove branches below the scaffold branches, or shorten them to reduce their vigor.

  1. Timing Matters

Many people don’t think to prune their trees in the winter, but winter is actually a great time to prune most trees. The tree is dormant and deciduous trees have lost their leaves, giving you a view into the structure of the canopy. It’s much easier to understand how a cut might impact the whole shape of the tree when you can see the path of the branch from trunk to twig. Late spring, after trees flower is also a good time to prune a tree because it hasn’t set any new buds or put a lot of resources into that year’s growth yet. Fall tends not to be a great time for pruning as rains in our region promote more fungal growth and diseases can be spread more easily at this time.

It is also wise to work on the tree while it is young. As I said in the introduction, the work is a lot easier when the limbs are smaller and within reach. Big problems with tree structure can be prevented with minimal effort or impact to the tree when they are caught early.

Goldilocks It – Not Too Much and Not Too Little

Having made your plan it’s important to set some boundaries for yourself. If you take too little you’ll have to come back to the tree sooner, often to fix the same issue again. If you take too much, you could shock the plant, creating undue stress, potentially triggering the growth of new shoots from places you hadn’t intended, or worse, lead to the plant’s untimely demise.

A good rule of thumb is that younger, vigorous and healthy plants can handle a heavier hand, and you can take up to 33% of the trees canopy. As trees get older (relative to that species and the site conditions) it won’t tolerate as much and you should reign yourself in to removing only about 10%.


That’s it for a quick overview of the basics. There are a lot of other things to cover like where to make a cut and how to identify weak branch attachments. If you thought this was helpful but want to dive deeper you should check out Tower Hill’s Basic Tree Pruning workshop. They are given multiple times throughout the year and the next one will be on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, from 10:30am-12:30pm. Registration is available on our website.