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Complete Guide to Pruning vs Trimming Trees

Two terms any tree owner definitely needs to know are pruning vs trimming. Although they both do seem similar and sometimes, the terms are interchangeable but even so, the required equipment and time of the application are different.

By applying pruning and trimming procedures, your trees would become strong, healthy, and attractive.

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Whether you’re a gardener or a fruit farmer or just someone obsessed with making their front yard pretty, being unaware of these procedures would hurt your trees.

Even if people know the terms, they aren’t used to the hands-on side of the job. We will shed light on your confusion on pruning vs trimming trees so you will get a better idea. Stay tuned.

Complete Guide of Pruning vs Trimming 

Complete Guide to Pruning vs Trimming Trees

Pruning and trimming are the right mixes of science and art, with the best of both. Both are simple in nature, but demand good command over skills from the worker. You have to do more than just buying a good pole pruner and climbing trees.

Identifying what part to cut, figuring out the depth, and placement and execution of the cuts without mistake take good awareness and some practice.

But don’t get us wrong, it’s not impossible for a newbie, you just need some guidance. And that’s why we are here.


Difference Between Trimming and Pruning

Both pruning and trimming are techniques that are done to help the tree. Therefore, many people can’t tell the difference and think both are the same thing. However, subtle differences do exist.

Pruning doesn’t have to be done frequently unless it’s required but trimming has to be done regularly. Trimming can’t kill a tree if it’s done wrong once, but pruning can.

While pruning is mostly concerned with the health of the tree, trimming focuses on the aesthetics and quality of life aspects more.

An in-depth discussion on pruning and trimming below will help you understand more about both:


What is Pruning?

What is Pruning?

Source: Amazon

Pruning is applied to remove dead parts of trees and shrubs which affect other plants and the environment as a maintenance project with a view to stimulating growth. It is a widely used application in horticulture.

Pruning Tools

The most common pruning tools are hand pole saws, pruning shears/secateurs, and garden loppers. Where hand shears are lightweight cutters used for small buds and leaves while lopping shears have 1 or 2 foot long handles for thicker branches located on a higher elevation.

When is the Best Time to Prune

Due to the structure and type of the tree, the best time for pruning varies for different trees. For example, the best time to prune deciduous trees will be different from flowering trees or fruit trees. 

However, the ideal time for pruning most of the trees lies between winter and early spring. So, the time frame is the most advisable for pruning trees and the reason for this is the dormancy of the plants.

Dormant trees are less vulnerable to stress and a low amount of sap is lost. Some plants need regular pruning while some can go without it for years.

As long as the pruning procedure is done correctly, everything should be fine.

Pruning Methods

  • Crown Thinning
  • Crown Raising
  • Crown Reduction
  • Crown Cleaning

Have you noticed all of the methods include the crown of a tree? The reason behind this is the crown is important for photosynthesis.

You need a strong crown for a healthy tree. Don’t worry! We’ll discuss these pruning methods in-depth down below:

The most common pruning tools are hand pole saws, shears, and lopping shears

Source: Amazon

Crown Thinning

This is done by removing specific branches to reduce the density and you can provide better sunlight and air circulation for your tree.

For large trees, removing the end portion of thick limbs of 1 to 4 inch diameter benefits them greatly. For smaller trees removing limbs that are ¼ to ½ inch thick is more than enough.

But, don’t remove more than 20% of the branches and the thinning should be consistent so that it looks like the tree wasn’t pruned at all.

Crown Raising

This is a long term procedure where you have to remove a selected few branches each year. Crown raising lifts up the limbs at the bottom edge of the tree.

Beware; by removing too many branches, the tree could become weak. So, a level of restraint is necessary.

Crown Reduction

This method is applied to older trees to encourage new growth. By removing a part of the branch, make a lateral branch that will be part of the crown in the growing season (mostly spring).

Crown Cleaning

Although you could include this in any of the previous three ones, the significance of this procedure makes it so that we have to discuss this separately.

Crown cleaning is where you remove all dead and diseased branches so that the tree can live long and healthy. Out of all of the methods, this one is the most important.

This can be performed anytime in conjunction with the other methods for strengthening and preventing damage to the tree and increasing the safety of your surroundings.

Pruning is applied to remove dead parts of trees and shrubs

Source: Amazon

A Brief Procedure of Pruning

  1. Cut halfway through the branch from the underside. Use the shears appropriate for the branch thickness.
  2. Keep cutting on a location 1 inch further away from the first cut. Stop when the branch breaks free.
  3. Make the final cut with a 45 degree angle outside the branch collar.

Importance of Pruning

  • Improves the overall health of the tree.
  • Encourages growth.
  • Dictates the direction of the growth of branches.
  • Gives a strong core structure.

Common Pruning Mistakes to Look Out For

Common Pruning Mistakes

You can rectify these pruning problems with special treatment, and also making sure that you prune your trees at the right time of the year. 

Bacterial Wetwood and Slime Flux

When you have been too heavy in pruning a tree, or damaged the bark, you may find that the tree looks like it is leaking. When a tree is leaking water, this is actually sap that is produced to help protect the tree from fungal infections and bacteria.

There are, however, other tree conditions which lead to a tree looking like it is leaking water - these include slime flux and bacterial wetwood, both of which are reasonably common. If the sap coming out of the tree smells sour and unpleasant, this is a sign of wetwood.

The sap will attract a variety of insects, which can cause damage to the bark of the tree. Slime flux can be treated using a mixture of bleach and water at a 1:10 ratio. This should be applied to the tree weekly for at least a month. There is no treatment for bacterial wetwood. 

Pruning Branch Tips

Although one of the reasons to prune a tree is to cut it back or restrict its growth, ultimately, pruning a tree will stimulate it to grow new branches. By just pruning the tips of the branches, you will find that 4-6 new branches will grow.

But if you don’t want the tree to become unruly very quickly, you should make fewer, larger cuts instead. The best solution is to prune your tree at the start of fall, when growth slows down.

Look for the more dominant branches - the ones where you are happy with the direction of growth. You should then remove all the competing branches around these dominant branches. Ultimately it will help the tree to stay healthy. 

One of the most common issues in pruning is that people prune too many branches off

Over-Pruning Your Tree

One of the most common issues in pruning is that people prune too many branches off, especially if the reason for pruning is to try to let the light through the canopy onto the grass below. 

Trees are generally fairly hardy, but you should never trim off more than 20% of the foliage. If you prune off too much in one go, the tree will struggle to produce enough food through photosynthesis, and as a result will be unable to structurally support itself.

This becomes a serious problem if you live in an area with a lot of rain, or regular high winds, where trees have a higher chance of damage.  

Pruning Too Close to the Trunk

If you prune branches off too close to the trunk, you will be removing the branch collar. This area looks like a bump or swelling at the base of the branch.

The branch collar has specialized cells that help the tree to repair wounds quickly and prevent the tree from getting diseases. If you prune the branch too close to the trunk, it will then be susceptible to pests and diseases, leaving the tree vulnerable.

You should also be careful to avoid bark tears when you are pruning. Make a clean cut through when you are pruning, try not to tear the wood, especially if it is a young tree. 

Common Pruning Problems

Pruning at the Wrong Time of Year

Before you get out your pruning equipment, make sure that you research carefully if it is the right time of year for a tree to be pruned. This varies depending on the species and the type of climate that you live in.

If the branches of your tree are facing the west, they shouldn’t be pruned in the hot summer months. Many species of tree, including maples and red oaks are also susceptible to sun scald, so should only be pruned in spring and fall, when the weather is cooler.

In the southern states of America however, oak trees shouldn’t be pruned between February and June, or they can spread oak wilt disease. 

Cutting Off the Top of the Tree

We cut the tops of trees, in particular conifers and pines, to simply reduce the height. However, in doing this, it will encourage the trees to produce leaders - large dominant branches growing on the outside of the tree.

These leaders will sadly only compromise the structural integrity of your tree. If a tree just has one dominant trunk without leaders it will be stronger against heavy winds, rain and snow.

The only way to fix the problem of dominant leaders is to bend them upward, using tape to attach them to the main trunk of the tree. If you can in future, try not to prune the entire top off a tree. 

For more pruning tips, see our articles on Different Ways on How to Prune Grape Vines and Tips on How and When to Prune Spirea.


What is Trimming?

What is Trimming?

Trimming mostly applies to bushes, hedging plants, and leaves. Most garden owners trim their plants regularly. Removing oversized branches and shaping the hedges and shrubs are the main reasons for trimming.

Trimming Tools

The most common trimming tools are hand saws, hedge trimmer, and hedge shears. The size of what you want to trim dictates which tool you should get.

Ideal Time for Trimming

The most common trimming tools are saws, hedge trimmer, and hedge shears

Just like pruning, trimming is best to do when plants are dormant. But since trimming doesn’t cut off an entire branch, it’s not harmful if you trim when you have to. 

But you must be careful not to trim too much or let water be settled.

The Right Way to Trim

  1. Make a small cut using the hand saw at a location slightly beyond the branch collar.
  2. Make another cut at a 45 to 60-degree angle a bit farther from the first collar. The branch should fall down.

Vines, shrubs, and small leaves don’t need any specific procedure, it’s as easy as trimming your hair. Check out our tree trimming tips for more information. 


Wrapping Up Our Complete Guide to Pruning vs Trimming Trees

Congratulations, by reading till the end, you now know the difference betwen pruning vs trimming and have enough knowledge about the theoretical side of the job. Now all that is left for you is to get some experience up close.

Our endeavour to bring you to the world of pruning vs trimming would bear fruit if you have learned something from this guide. Why don’t you develop your skills starting from today? 

About the Author Ann Katelyn

I'm Ann Katelyn, Creator and Chief Author of Sumo Gardener. Since I was a child I've always been fascinated with plants and gardens, and as an adult this has developed into my most loved hobby. I have dedicated most of my life to gardening and started Sumo Gardener as a way to express my knowledge about gardening with the hope of helping other people's gardens thrive.

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