Related story and video: It’s tree pruning time

COLUMBIA, Mo.– Pruning trees when they’re young can prevent structural problems and the need to remove large limbs later, says a University of Missouri Extension state forestry specialist.

“Removing steep-angled forks early is an important correction,” said Hank Stelzer. “If the correction isn’t made early, it can be a pretty large branch and you’ll end up taking off a sizable portion of the tree’s crown.” Pruning those forks when the tree is still young lets the tree grow a nice, vertical central leader.

Stelzer, who is also an associate professor of forestry at MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, says it is important to look at the architecture of the tree and prune from the top down.

“Most people think about pruning from the ground up – what we call pruning from below – and you’re not getting ahead of the problem,” Stelzer said. “You should prune from the very top and look for those steep angles because those are going to be a problem for wind and ice.”

Those branches are a lot weaker than one with a flat angle, he said. Regardless of size, it is important to take the entire branch off rather than just shorten it.

“What that does is create a lot of little branches,” Stelzer said. “They may make the tree look bushier but they are actually weaker, so when you have a wind or ice storm those are the places that will break first.”

While pruning is important, Stelzer cautions against overpruning.

“Take no more than about a fourth of the total branches in the tree’s canopy,” he said. “You don’t want to take too much of the factory. You still have that large root system underground. With a reduced crown to supply food to those roots, too severe a prune could mean a slow death to the tree.”

Using the right tools is also important. Use clippers, handsaws or even a pole saw, but not a chain saw, Stelzer said. If you need to remove a branch big enough to require a chain saw, Stelzer recommends hiring a professional arborist to do the job.

“When you are looking at the branches to remove, if you’ve got something that’s giving you second thoughts, listen to your inner voice and call a professional,” he said. “You want to be in control of the chain saw. When you get that chain saw above your waist, definitely above your shoulders, you’re not in control.”

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