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Prune That Troublesome Limb Out of Your Tree!

AS A GARDEN COACH, ONE OF THE REQUESTS I HEAR MOST OFTEN from clients is, “Can you teach me how to prune my overgrown tree/shrub/rose bush/hedge/etc.?” Pruning seems to be a black hole of gardening knowledge, and one that intimidates many gardening beginners. Part of the problem appears to be this:

Figure 1. A really confusing guide to basic pruning.

It reminds me of a high school algebra exam upon which I’m about to score very, very poorly. We’ve got angles AB and CX, hardwoods and conifers, and branch collars and bark ridges going in every direction. And this was published by the Arbor Day Foundation, fer cryin’ out loud! Could they make this any more confusing for the tree-loving American public? I think not. Tree companies love illustrations like this precisely because it makes the process look difficult and therefore, expensive.

(It’s not that the Arbor Day guide is wrong, but it’s overkill for the average home gardener.)

LET'S SAY YOU* WANT TO REMOVE A DAMAGED LIMB from, say, a crabapple tree. Standing beside you, I'd provide the following SIMPLIFIED explanation of how to remove a tree branch.


So what’s the deal with making three cuts? It has to do with gravity. A branch often carries a lot of weight. As we cut through it, it may suddenly break off, tearing off a large strip of bark below it. The FIRST cut is through the bark “skin” under the limb you’re removing (A). The SECOND cut them removes the branch (B). Presto – you’ve now removed the weight of the branch. Cuts one and two don’t need to be pretty.

Figure 2. Basic pruning in 3 cuts. (via MSU Extension Service)

The THIRD cut is the important one to make correctly (C). If you look closely, most trees will show you exactly where to cut off the branch: there’s a slight ridge of raised bark where the branch meets the trunk. The trick is to find that ridge collar and cut just to the outside, away from the trunk. Do not cut off the branch “flush” with the trunk, and don’t leave a long stub. The tree needs the smallest bit of stub to heal up and callous over. (As my arboriculture instructor said, “Just enough to hang your hat.”) The cut line in Figure 2 looks a little too vertical to my eye, but the general information is presented correctly.

It’s important to use clean and sharp, good-quality tools to prune. I disinfect my tools between plants and jobs, and I have my loppers professionally sharpened seasonally. A touch of 3-in-1 oil keeps everything slicing smoothly. Do not use any kind of sealant on the cut surface – this is more likely to seal in pathogens than keep them out.

Trees, shrubs, hedges, you name it: WE LOVE PRUNING. It’s one of the most satisfying jobs in the garden and you get to enjoy the results immediately and in the future. We offer a variety of pruning classes for residential trees and shrubs at the Columbus Garden School. Some are online (Zoom) and others are hands-on, guided practice at the school. Email us if you’d like to learn more!

*Your mileage may vary, depending on YOU. Use common sense about your own skills and tools. Protect your hands, eyeballs, and other body parts you’re fond of. Hire a professional if necessary.

Tisa Watts • (614) 404-7236 Visit for year-round gardening, homesteading, home maintenance, and craft classes. via email

Residential landscape design • Public speaker • Eco-educator

(C) 2022 Columbus Garden School. All rights reserved. Permission granted to republish if links and content are correctly attributed to Tisa Watts, Columbus Garden School. Thanks!

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