DON’T Make This Tree Pruning Mistake: To Prune or not to Prune

This is the second blog in a three part series. Visit part one here and visit us soon to see the third installment.

Have you seen trees like this in your neighborhood?


Tree topping is a pruning practice that could cause long-term damage to your trees. With that in mind, it’s important to know when and how to prune your trees. While it’s important to check your trees yearly, they don’t necessarily need to be pruned each time!

How often should I trim the tree and when?

It is best to prune branches when they are less than 3” thick. During a tree’s first five years, structural pruning can ensure that growing branches have enough space and a strong, secure attachment to the trunk.

Once a tree’s structure is set, the only pruning that should be done is to remove “The Four D’s.”

  • Dead: Not sure if a branch is dead or alive? Scratch the bark. If it’s green underneath, it’s alive.
  • Diseased
  • Damaged
  • Deranged: In other words, a branch that is grown out of place, has co-dominant stems, crossing or rubbing branches, or branches growing toward the center of the tree.

Periodic maintenance allows for healthy growth and the space needed to live up to its full potential.

How much should be trimmed?


It’s important to remember that any cut creates a wound! That’s why it’s important to be thoughtful and remove only what  is needed. Less is better! ALL dead or diseased wood should be removed. Otherwise, follow these guidelines:

  • For a young tree, no more than 25% of the tree’s live wood should be removed each year.
  • For a mature tree, no more than 20% of the tree’s live wood should be removed each year.

This brings us to yet other harmful practices called lacing or thinning. This common, yet dangerous practice starves a tree–giving it less leaves, and therefore less ability to create energy. It is a myth that thinning a tree out allows the wind to go through it, thus making it less susceptible to wind damage. The opposite is true! Over-thinning allows wind to hit every branch.

Also, be on the lookout for lion-tailing. Lion-tailing removes the inside branches and leaves, leaving the majority of foliage on the ends of branches. The result is more branches breaking, wind or no wind.

And remember to never prune a stressed tree–especially a drought-stressed tree. Make sure your trees are well-watered and healthy looking before removing any live wood. (On the other hand, dead and diseased wood can always be removed.)

Tree pruning should be a careful process– never a quick, cheap routine. The best way to protect your trees is by hiring an ISA Certified arborist. In our next post, we’ll cover tips on how to hire a top-notch crew.

Want to learn more about caring for trees? Visit our website for step-by-step videos and tutorials!


  1. Jake   •  

    Perhaps you should distinguish between thinning and over-thinning. Thinning is a commonly used practice and multiple sources including the ISA recommend thinning for tree health. It is detrimental when only interior branches are removed rather than small branches around the periphery of the canopy. While it only provides a temporary reduction in wind drag and is not as impactful as reduction pruning in reducing wind drag it should not be written off as a bad practice.

    ‘Thinning is selective branch removal to improve structure and to increase light penetration and air movement through the crown. Proper thinning opens the foliage of a tree, reduces weight on heavy limbs, and helps retain the tree’s natural shape.’

    Arboriculture & Urban Forestry 34(4):July 2008
    “The Effects of Pruning on Drag and Bending Moment of Shade Trees”
    Authors: Michael Pavlis, Brian Kane, J. Roger Harris, and John R. Seiler

  2. David Straub   •  

    I posted this elsewhere on this site as well! I am desperate to not lose my only tree, but I may have to cut it down. What if you have to cut it way back drastically? My maple tree is now touching my neighbors house on one side, and my other neighbor’s garage! That is NOT acceptable …… it is either cut it way back, or cut it down! I NEED the shade, just not all of what I get now ( it is also shading too much of my garden as well). My “yard/driveway” is very narrow also. This tree really should not be there (came up on it’s own), but since it is there, it needs to be controlled. It is approx 30-40 feet tall now, with a huge crown. What should/can I do to keep this tree?

  3. HF   •  

    Hello! We just started our own tree service business and just so happened to find this article. Not only was this article informative but you made a not so appealing topic like trees very interesting. We loved the video in there as well. We look forward to reading more of your articles.

  4. Sandra Patterson   •  

    Thank you for the tip about structural pruning being a good way to ensure that growing branches have enough space to grow well. My house has some trees in our front yard that are pretty new and have not been trimmed before. I think we will have a professional come and trim them so that they can grow well and be healthy.

  5. Whether to do tree trimming or not is actually a big question. It is quite necessary first decide what kind of tree trimming or pruning you want. It is better to take advice from experts. Thanks a lot for sharing this information here. I would like to see more on this!
    Tree Trimming South Bend

  6. Nate T Greenfield   •  

    Very interesting topic and I am a certified arborist and it is ok to thin a tree but not take it to the extreme and it’s very important to do any type of pruning in the correct time of year and make proper cuts. I enjoyed this article and hope others do as well.

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