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Whether it's keeping a large-growing species in scale or giving a shaggy tree a trim, smart pruning can improve a tree's appearance. Make sure you're making the right cuts in a safe and effective way.

Some trees show their attractive bark or flowers more effectively when pruned. Learn how to prune your trees the right way and at the right time of year to add beauty and longevity.

When to Prune Trees

Major pruning should not be done from January to early March in most areas. Trees that have just leafed out in spring will be weakened by pruning too early. By waiting until late summer, you can prevent weakening. Once you remove deadwood in the summer, leafless branches are easily spotted. After the leaves fall and the branches can be seen clearly, prune for structure and form.

Pruning for clearance should be done when branches are sagging to their lowest point.

The Dos and Don'ts of Cutting Trees

Wrong: Don't cut too close or too far from the trunk. Flush cuts are too large and delay the sealing of the wound. Also, leaving an ugly stub which can give insects an entry point. The wound cannot seal until the stub is removed.

Right: Make the cut just outside the branch collar (the swollen area where the branch meets the trunk). The branch collar contains chemicals that speed the formation of callus tissue that seals the wound.

How to Cut Branches

Larger branches are best removed in three steps.

1. Make a shallow cut on the underside of the branch, about 4-5 inches from the trunk.

2. Cut the branch off about 2-3 inches from the initial cut. When the weight of the unsupported branch causes it to fall, the initial cut keeps the bark from peeling down the side of the trunk.

3. Make the final cut, removing the remaining stub. Make this cut just outside the branch collar: the slightly swollen area where the branch and trunk are joined together.

When cutting back stems, avoid making the cut halfway between buds. This leaves a long portion of the stem to wither and die, which is unsightly and invites insects and disease.

Instead, make the cut about 1/4 inch above a bud. Choose a bud facing the direction you wish new growth to follow, and angle the cut in the same direction.

Where to Cut Branches

Make your first cut 4-5 inches above the union of branches, then make the finished cut about 1/4 inch above the union. On larger limbs that were pruned too late, cut one side back to a lateral branch so that the other side begins to dominate.

You can use products to inhibit regrowth, or suckering, from the pruning wound. Some applications may allow regrowth but at a reduced rate. These plant growth regulators are frequently used when pruning trees under power lines. The treatment allows the tree to regrow but lengthens the time before another pruning cycle is necessary.

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