What Is Pruning? Benefits, Types and Required Tools

Young woman pruning a shrub.

JulPo/Getty Images

When you own a shrub or tree, you can bet that a good amount of your time or resources caring for it will be spent on pruning. A lot of people confuse pruning with some similar ideas. Pruning is incredibly impactful and needs to be done correctly and at the right time. Following standardized guidelines, pruning a tree or shrub can dramatically increase a plant's lifespan and aesthetic appeal and sometimes decrease risk to people and property. 

What Is Pruning?

Pruning is the deliberate removal of tree branches and limbs to achieve the specific objective of altering a tree’s health and form.

Benefits of Pruning

Pruning will take up a considerable amount of your time or money if you hire a service to do the work for you, and at times, that is the best option, especially when safety is a concern. Even though you may think it can be skipped, the benefits outweigh the cost of your time and impact on your wallet. Everyone's time is valuable, so knowing the reasons for doing this chore and doing it on a timely basis are many might help you decide to prune your trees and shrubs should not be put off.

First, the tree or shrub is itself valuable; it provides curb appeal to the property and is an asset. Pruning will help ensure the tree stays healthy by increasing airflow and light penetration. By pruning the tree, you will also remove dead, damaged, and dying branches. Removing these branches keeps the tree safe and removes hazards to people and structures around the plant. Pruning can be your first step in ensuring that your tree establishes good form and structure, which can alleviate the need to remove many dead and dying branches at other times.

Pruning is also valuable because it allows you to maintain proper clearance for vehicle and pedestrian traffic and lets you control sightlines. Finally, pruning provides you with a way to manage the aesthetics of a tree or shrub by making selective cuts to control its form and structure. All of the reasons for pruning help guarantee that you protect your investment in your plant or your property by maintaining the plant's health, reducing risk, or increasing the property's aesthetics. Considering the reasoning, it is easy to see why it can be worth the time and money to prune your trees and shrubs.

Types of Pruning

There are standards that professionals follow that guide them in determining what kind of pruning a tree or shrub needs. These are divided into four different types of pruning, each with its unique purpose. Other specialty types of pruning allow for decorative and utilitarian forms often used for fruiting trees called pollarding and espalier. In general, homeowners will use four types of pruning: to clean, thin, raise, and reduce.

  • Cleaning refers to selective pruning that removes dead, diseased, or broken branches.
  • Thinning refers to selective pruning resulting in an even distribution of branches on individual limbs and throughout the crown.
  • Raising refers to selective pruning that provides vertical clearance.
  • Reduction refers to selective pruning to decrease height and spread.

When pruning a small woody shrub, it is always important to remember the 1/3 rule. Never remove more than 1/3 of a small woody shrub's wood. Removing more can cause irreparable damage to the tree. Medium and large trees generally cannot tolerate more than a reduction of 15-20 percent, which would be more like the 1/5 rule, if you wanted an equivalent.

Pruning Tools

To do the job of pruning takes some specialized tools. There is no need for very expensive motorized tools; at the point of needing these, it might be a good time to look towards hiring a certified arborist to take care of your woody plant needs. An average homeowner or gardener needs three or four simple tools and the items to keep them clean.

Starting from the smallest cuts you will make, up to about a quarter of an inch, you will want to choose a pair of hand pruners. These come in different varieties, but the two you will be interested in pruning are bypass and anvil blades. Bypass is best used for live wood and stems, whereas anvil blades are better reserved for the dead and dying.

Next, if the branches being cut are larger, you will need a tool that manages the thickness. Ideally, you want the blade to do the work, not the crushing force, which happens when a tool's cutting surface is too small. You will want to choose hand loppers for wood up to an inch and a half. These, like hand pruners, come in bypass, and anvil varieties, so choose the best blade for the type of wood you are cutting.

Finally, a good quality pruning saw is your best bet for wood larger than an inch and a half. Pruning saws also come in assorted varieties. Some saws fold, while others have fixed blades and require a scabbard for storage; you will also notice some have curved blades and cut only on a pull stroke, while others cut on both push and pull. The choice is entirely up to you, but there are great reviews to look at before you decide what is best for your needs.

After purchasing your tools, consider that you must keep yourself safe while using them, so grab a good pair of puncture-resistant work gloves and some eye protection. If you plan to be making any cuts above your head, head protection is never a bad idea either. One last purchase that should be made and kept with your tools is the items needed to keep them clean so that every time you use them, you remember to clean them before and after use. All you need to do this is some rubbing alcohol and paper towels or, better yet, a spray bottle containing a solution of one bleach and ten parts water. Spray or wipe down your tools habitually to reduce the chance of pathogens spreading from one plant to another after pruning.

  • When is the best time to prune?

    This question is a bit tricky because the answer changes with some species but in general the best time to prune most deciduous trees is in the winter when the tree is dormant.

  • What's the difference between pruning and shearing?

    The two terms are often mistakenly used interchangeably but they are completely different. Shearing is cutting off GROUPS of LIVE branches and stems to create form and shape for aesthetic purposes. Pruning is selectively choosing single branches and removing them to improve health, negate hazards, and improve sightlines and right of way.

  • How much should you prune?

    Never remove more than 1/3 of the tree or shrub. Doing so will damage the tree.