Pruning is the stock and trade of professional arborists. A well-pruned tree is a thing of beauty, born of skill and knowledge. Done well, pruning enhances tree aesthetics, fosters new growth, and mitigates human and tree hazards.

Make the right cut every time

Pruning can be broken down to a series of tasks, which can then be reduced to actions. The single most important action in proper pruning is making the cut. Cutting as close to the branch bark collar without disturbing it and making clean, even cuts with no rips, tears or splintering on the finished product are vital. Perfect these skills first. Use the proper tool, be it chain saw, handsaw, rope or block. Perfect the cut first.

Have a plan

Pruning should always have a stated purpose. Making random cuts on any plant is foolhardy and wasteful. Pruning can accomplish many goals: health, growth, reduction, vista or sight lines, safety, aesthetics and restoration. But how these goals are achieved with the plant’s best interests and longevity in mind may differ greatly. Having a clear plan with priorities, guidelines and goals allows the arborist to envision the finished product, make corrections if needed and work efficiently. Quality control is also much easier when pruning specifics are laid out beforehand and observed.

Have a plan with clearly defined objectives before starting any pruning job. Photo: Tony Tresselt

Use sharp, high-quality tools

Professionals use professional tools. Not only will they last longer and make better cuts, high-quality, sharp tools are safer. Saving $10 or $20 on a handsaw may seem tempting, but how many will you go through making hundreds of cuts a day? How long will a less expensive tool stay sharp?

Good tools stay sharp. Sharp tools cut better and more efficiently, saving time, money and effort. Sharp tools leave behind crisp edges and smooth surfaces. This is the look of a professional. Hinge cuts and drop cuts work much better with sharp tools. Take pride in your work and in the equipment you do it with.

Think of the plant as a whole

Novice pruners often get caught up in the minutia of every cut, every twig, and forget the plant as a whole. If you’re pruning small specimens, step away often and look at the whole plant. If you’re climbing a large tree, have your ground person give you an outside-in perspective.

See if the thinning is even throughout. Check the branch structure: is it good for the species? A Japanese Zelcova has a shape distinct from a George Washington Hawthorn. Have you chosen cuts to accentuate the plant’s natural form? Is the crown high enough to discourage untrained would-be arborists? Details are important, but so is the big picture, and it is often the big picture the client will judge the quality of your work on.

Take time to leave the flowers

Timing is important for some species of trees and shrubs. Plan your pruning cycles around optimum times as appropriate. Also, seek to do structure pruning at times of the year when the structure can be better seen. (Some plants are susceptible to bark peel in the spring.) Take it easy on yourself and the tree. Prune before or after these times.

Don’t forget why many people plant flowering species: for the flowers. Prune to achieve maximum flowering through timing, thinning and other species-appropriate methods.

Seek history

Plants have a history. From the day they sprouted to the moment you approach to care for them, they have been in a constant interaction with their environment. Look for the signs of this and act accordingly. A small tree next to a house may be thinner on one side than the other due to shading. A large tree exposed in an expansive front yard may have experienced storm breaks in the past. Trees may lean due to prevailing winds.

All these factors affect the health and well-being of the plant. The tree is telling you something. A tree that has had extensive storm damage in the past may need a more thorough, careful crown reduction than average. A tree next to a newly installed swimming pool may be stressed, but not showing it yet. Any number of external and internal histories can affect tree health.

Teaching can be a great way to refine your skills and knowledge. Photo: Tony Tresselt

Share your knowledge

It is often said in training circles that if you really want to master a skill, teach it. This is especially true of pruning. Vocalizing your actions to another when you prune will engage another aspect of your brain. Not only must you make a decision, you must explain why and how. This opens you to new possibilities in learning and growing.

Teaching new arborists will also remind you of the basics. Many times, going back to the simplest ideas and terms helps ground our advanced knowledge in the foundation it developed from. As with any skill, a firm base of knowledge and actions is required to advance. Teaching somebody else returns us to our roots.

Shift your thinking

Customers ask, “How do you know what to take out?” Arborists I am training ask, “Should I take this one out?” My response is this: “It is not a matter of if it should go, but one of should it stay.”

When pruning, shift your thinking from “What should I take out?” to “What should I leave behind?” Once a limb is cut and cast off to the brush pile, it ceases to matter to the tree. What matters is what is left behind. Do not wonder how much should be removed. Instead, wonder how much should be left behind. It is this the tree will depend on for its future.


On bright, sunny days, everybody wants the arborist’s job. It’s easy to find fascination when pruning a large, fantastic, flowering tree or shrub. Remember these times and recall them on the dismal days when nothing goes right, the plants look terrible and your mood is foul.

Remember that what you do now will affect the plant until it dies. The work of the arborist must not only embrace the past and infuse the present, it must look to the future. Think of pruning not only as a skill or job to be done, but one to be mastered and perfected on a continual basis. Learn all you can, share it whenever possible and embrace the finer aspects of philosophy, planning and precision.