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Practice 3 D's of pruning

Tree Talk: Remove dead, diseased and dying branches, plus suckers, water sprouts, foreign objects and vines.

Fredric Miller

December 27, 2019

3 Min Read
sun shining through green forest
Xurzon/Getty Images

Now that we are officially in winter, you might want to make plans to prune your woody plants. Not all plants require pruning, but for those that do, here are some basic pruning steps you can take that will improve tree structure and add to the vitality and longevity of the plant. Remember, pruning is both art and science.

3 D’s. One of the simpler but important pruning strategies involves the three D’s: Remove any plant parts that are dead, diseased and dying. Dead branches; branches that are infected with a disease, such as fire blight on apples and pears; and limbs that are in the process of dying due to cracks at the trunk, branch union, storm damage, cankers (wounds that never heal) and wood-boring insects should be removed.

Also, remove any branches that are rubbing against each other, broken and out of place. When removing rubbing branches, remove the branch that is affected the most. If you don’t, the chronically “irritated” area will serve as entrance for decay-causing pathogens and insects.

Suckers. Suckers arise from the base of the tree, usually from the root graft union area or the roots themselves, and should be removed. Crabapples and other flowering trees are prone to suckering. Some tree species, such as poplars, sucker naturally, and it is considered a method of vegetative reproduction. As they say, “Plant one poplar tree, and soon you have a whole forest.”

Water sprouts. Like suckers, water sprouts can be very aggressive. They arise from aboveground portions of trees and show up in large numbers following heavy pruning. Water sprouts typically arise from the upper side of major limbs, usually grow straight up into the crown, and within a few short years can reach the same diameter as the branch they are growing from.

Most water sprouts should be removed — but only most. If you remove all of them from the interior portion of the tree canopy, it will actually increase the production of even more sprouts. Step back and look at the tree from a distance, and then decide which sprouts should be removed and which ones should be left. Pay attention to spacing. Additional sprouts can be removed later, over time.

Foreign objects. This is also a good time to remove any foreign objects such as nails, wire, rope and other chain-saw-dulling objects. If left in place, the tree may eventually grow over or around the object, causing problems later for both you and the tree. If vines are present, remove those as well.

Tools. Use the right pruning tools for the job. Hand pruners are good for cutting live branches up to a half-inch in diameter. Loppers and handsaws can be used for larger cuts. Remember, never make a flush cut when removing branches, and make sure your tools are good and sharp so you can make a clean cut. Clean cuts heal faster.

For further details on pruning woody plants, consult your local county Extension office or local certified arborist.

Miller is a horticulture professor at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Ill., and a senior research scientist in entomology at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. Email your tree questions to him at [email protected].

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