Best Time of Year to Trim, Prune Trees (Hint: It’s Not Fall)

For some reason, many people believe tree pruning in the fall is the perfect time of year, especially where four seasons are present. The bright leaves begin falling, and some large limbs look a little iffy. But that assumption could damage your precious trees or even kill them even mature trees.

“The fall is not the time to learn how to prune. Trees are preparing for dormancy then, and it’s taking all the good stuff out of its leaves to store,” says Tchukki Andersen, staff arborist for Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) in Manchester, N.H. The organization offers training and resources for tree care companies.

If you just go willy nilly and start cutting tree branches, you aren’t going to see success, the arborist states. If there isn’t an absolute reason to do prune trees in the fall, then don’t. Save your tree care pruning when the tree is actively growing in the early spring or completely dormant in the winter months.

She does stress that qualified tree care specialists are pruning trees every day year-round without a lot of detrimental effects.

“However, tree service professionals know more on how to care for the health of a tree,” she states. “They understand its stages and processes such as dormancy and new growth.”

Andersen adds that many homeowners really don’t know what kind of trees are on their property until a crisis happens. Learning about those trees and their needs for staying healthy can add value to homes and add shade and beautification to the landscape.

She recommends before pruning lower branches or any other part of the tree to first get an assessment from tree trimming professionals or an arborist before doing anything with your trees.

Get Expert Advice

Good tree care starts with taking a tree inventory. If you don’t know what kind of trees are growing in your yard or whether or not they need trimming, then there are several things you can do to find out.

Andersen suggests contacting your local Cooperative Extension Service to get free advice. Some have a certified arborist or horticulturist on staff. They offer their expertise for the area in which you live whether that in the country or a big city. You can find the one closest to you by clicking on Land-Grant University Website Directory and go to your state.  Once you locate your state, click on it, and there usually will be a tab to Locate Your Local County Extension Office. Their websites are robust, Andersen says, with information about trees, too.

Or you can find a qualified tree care company to come do an assessment. You can ask them about the health of your trees, which ones might fall on your house in a storm and any other pending disasters, she says. To find a certified arborist, you can go to the International Society of Arboriculture’s (ISA) TreesAreGood.org, a website helping the public with tree-care information.

When to Prune, by Tree Type

Most routine pruning is done to remove infestation, weak, dead or diseased branches, and can be completed at any time during the year with little effect on the tree. Pruners should know as a rule, growth and wound closure are heightened if pruning happens in late winter before a spring growth spurt, confirms the ISA’s tree-pruning guide.

The wounds from pruning can spread diseases. Oak trees, for example, can suffer from oak wilt. Each cut can change the way a tree grows. So, Andersen says that no branch should be cut without a clear reason. Strive for branch collar cuts when pruning.

Homeowners remove dead branches to make the tree look better and grow stronger. They also prune hazardous branches which could fall on someone or the roof during a thunderstorm. Shaping trees can also enhance light diffusion and air flow to the tree’s crown or to someone’s home or landscape.

Here are a few different types of trees and the best time of year to trim a tree:

Deciduous

These are the trees which shed their leaves each year. Most deciduous trees should be pruned in late fall to winter, according to the Wisconsin Horticulture division of the Extension Service. They have entered their dormant season and it’s easy then to see the framework of the branches, and the activity of insects and disease are gone.

Young Trees

Developing a strong and good shaped tree happens with proper pruning. Trees that receive the right amount of pruning while they are young will need less excessive trimming as they grow older. Ask your professionals when the trimming should be done depending on your area of the country.

Subtropic

Trim trees year-round in areas such as Florida and California because of the growing environment. They are replacing lost tissue constantly and have plentiful sources of sunshine and water 12 months a year, Andersen adds. “You can’t prune large limbs off every day, though,” she says. The industry standard is to never make pruning cuts that remove more than 30 percent of live tissue from a tree in any season. “If you have a giant broken branch and 30 percent of the leaves are on that branch, you are done for the season.”

Flowering Trees

They should be pruned after blooming, according to the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture. Routine pruning of dead or dying branches can be done at any time. However, your type of tree can have specific needs and rules for trimming.

New Trees

  • Inspect for pruning needs annually.
  • Prune trees regularly throughout their life to keep them healthy, safe, and aesthetically pleasing.
  • Do not defer pruning until limbs get large. Large limbs equal large wounds, which are more difficult for a tree to seal and leave the tree open to disease, insects, and rot.
  • Do not attempt to chop the tops off trees to reduce their size as a substitute for proper tree selection and placement. This practice, called topping, can truly hurt your trees.

“The hard part of people to understand is that we have to prune at the pace the tree wants us to. You can’t make it look good just in one season,” Andersen says.

Lee Nelson

Lee Nelson

Lee Nelson, an experienced freelance writer and former award-winning newspaper reporter, writes for National Association of Realtors and many state Realtor magazines. She lives in Illinois with her high school sweetheart and loves cooking, swimming, traveling and spending time with her grandchildren.