How to Prune or Trim Young Trees for Structure and Form

How to Prune or Trim Young Trees for Structure and Form

We love the look of our mature trees after a timely prune. They’re crisp, clean cut and ready to grow a healthy canopy.

But did you know that young, or newly planted trees, also like to be trimmed?

We had to share the knowledge - especially since a reader reached out to learn more about this. Specifically, he asked, “I planted a small tree that had multiple branches growing from the bottom area of the trunk. I wanted one main trunk, so I trimmed off two other branches. Did I hurt the tree?

Below we dive into that question - along with how and why to shape young trees.

Should you prune young trees? Why?

New trees need help finding their way during their early years. Without your guidance, young trees can start to branch out in the wrong direction.

To wrangle their wild tendencies, prune them to provide a stable structure.

While forest trees compete for sunlight in close quarters, urban trees have plenty of light - sometimes all to themselves. Newly planted trees happily soak up the sun, causing multiple branches to grow that compete with one another to become the “leader.”

Despite having many strong branches, this makes the tree overall weaker. Without a defined trunk, trees lack the central frame needed to withstand storm damage. Plus, this could cause future structural issues, which can be costly to fix later.

How do you train young trees with pruning?

To make room for the leading limb, arborists select a central branch that’s free of damage, wounds or defects. Then, they identify competing stems to shorten or remove.

Riding your tree of rival branches is called structural or subordinate pruning. The goal is to encourage the tree’s leader to grow by trimming competing branches.

Training your young tree to grow the right way is simple and quick. Plus, this small step can often prevent expensive or damaging structural corrections later.

As always, before DIY-ing this project, consult your arborist to avoid severe or long-term damage from an improper cut. Rule of thumb: no more than 25% of the canopy should be removed at a time. 

Any tips on when to prune young trees?

When you first plant a tree, trim away any broken, defected or damaged branches to prevent future issues.

Then, wait.

Two to three years after planting, you’ll see tree branches sprout into competition. When you see this happening, schedule your subordinate pruning with your local arborist.

Questions about shaping your young tree? Leave a comment below, and you’ll hear from us soon!

  • Troy Landscaping June 9, 2018 >I know this post is old, but it has some pretty stellar insight into why pruning is so important to keeping young trees healthy. The fact that these trees naturally grow in more crowded areas (and have adapted to do so) hits the nail right on the head. I have talked to customers who have put their trees at serious risk through DIY pruning jobs, and it's really a topic people should research thoroughly before doing themselves, or, better yet, leave to professional arborists and landscapers. Not doing so can be very costly and may even result in dead or undesirable looking trees that bring down the over-all appearance of a lawn. Hopefully people get a chance to read articles like this before making that mistake.
  • Patricia Wilson March 13, 2018 >It really helped when you said that tree pruning is necessary to help guide tree branches grow properly. We have young trees in our country home because my husband planted them as part of this commitment to a more environment-friendly life. What I'm wary of is that the braches are growing too close to the house and that if they're not pruned, might end up causing structural damage in the long run. I'd be sure to have a professional cut the tree properly since we live in the city close to where my husband works. Thanks for helping us better understand the science of tree cutting.
  • The Tree Doctor November 30, 2017 >Hi there, Alexa. Many trees that lose their “leader” bud will select the next lower bud/branch to become the new leader. As long as the trees are well taken care of, they shouldn’t react poorly to this. We would recommend to watch to make sure only one central leader is selected and remove any co-dominant leaders. Hope this helps, Alexa.
  • Alexa Metcalf November 16, 2017 >I recently received 10 young Japanese Flowering Cherry Trees from a local arbor foundation. All of the trees are about 2'-3' in height and every one of the trees have the top of the main trunk/leader/stem cut off. This has me rather concerned about the overall growth, development & strength of the trees as they try to come back from this. I called the foundation and they replied that cutting off the tops of the trees are standard practice in order to "fit the trees" in the box for shipping and will not have any impact on the tree being able to reach full height in maturity. I intend to have these trees out on an open acreage, which tends to get very high winds in the spring. Should I be concerned or is this legitimate standard practice that trees can recover from with little structural impact? I fear that these trees will be forever stunted and never gain a solid, centered leader.
  • scott thorn September 13, 2017 >I like that you recommend to trim any broken or defected branches of a young tree. I can see why this would help it grow better later on. My sister recently has planted a couple trees in her yard. I'll have to remind her of this.
  • The Tree Doctor May 26, 2017 >Hi Lynn. Great question about whether you should remove a trunk now or later. Without seeing the tree, it's hard to make that call. Instead, could you please send a picture of the tree to us at blog@davey.com? With that, we should be able to provide a better answer for you, Lynn.
  • Lynn Swanson April 28, 2017 >I have a young Olive tree with 4 trunks. I want to keep it a multi trunk tree, but should I remove 1 or more of the trunks now? The tree is about 7 ft tall now and I have pruned it to lift the canopy to approx 30 in so far.
  • The Tree Doctor April 13, 2017 >Hi there, Mick. Thanks for reaching out about your ironwood tree. It does sound like it was going through some adjustments. From what you've shared, though, now seems like a good time to start pruning, so your tree can develop a stable structure. If it is a city tree, it might be the municipality's responsibility to prune. They typically don't mind if a quality tree company handles the pruning, but it may need to be done based on certain specs. If it's a city tree, reach out to the municipality to see what they say. If it's your tree, reach out to a local, certified arborist for help. Here if there's anything else we can do to help, Mick.
  • Mick Garrison April 9, 2017 >We have used your service several times in the past, working with Loren. Three and a half years ago, the city cut down a diseased Ash tree growing on the area between the sidewalk and street. We took advantage of the 50/50 deal the city offered and had an Ironwood planted. We knew that it was a slow growing tree. After planting we noticed some dead spots where branches were not budding. There were bare spots. We removed some of the dead twigs, but left others that looked like they might "come back". After 3 seasons the tree is filling out but I think it could benefit from a "selective pruning." What do you recommend?
  • The Tree Doctor October 28, 2016 >Hi there, Debra! This is a tough one. Without seeing the tree in person, we can't confidently make a recommendation of whether you should trim now or wait. If you send a few pictures to blog@davey.com, we can hopefully provide a more detailed answer. Or, you can schedule a free consultation with your local Davey arborist. They'd provide more insight into this while also evaluating your fire glow maple's overall health. You can reach them at 703. 297.3002 or by connecting online here: davey.com/local-offices/northern-virginia-tree-service/#main-form
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