Most of us can confidently give our trees the care they need to stay healthy. Water, mulch, fertilize—no problem.
But trimming trees on your own? It can feel like uncharted territory. Large pruning jobs should absolutely be left to a professional, but trimming small branches and trees is perfectly manageable. Yes, you can learn how to prune a small tree all on your own!
If you’re up to the task, keep reading for a step-by-step guide to pruning small branches and small trees.
When DIY Tree Trimming is OK, and When It’s Not
Want to trim a small tree with lightweight branches and a canopy at eye level? Go for it! However, you should not attempt to prune a tree if you have to climb a ladder to reach the branches, if it’s near a power line, or if it has large branches that are too heavy to handle.
How to trim small tree branches yourself
Let’s start with the steps to trimming just one branch, then get into pruning a small tree. To trim a branch:
- Make sure your pruning tool is sharp and clean.
- Get to know the parts of the branch and tree. Quick vocab lesson here: the branch collar is the swelled-up area under the branch that connects the branch and tree. It’s easy to spot on some tree species, not so easy on others. The branch bark ridge is the area between the branch and trunk that’s raised just slightly higher than the branch. If you think of the branch as an arm, the bark ridge is the shoulder and the collar is the underarm.
- Eyeball the spot you’ll cut. The goal is to make a cut slightly beyond the branch collar, far enough to not cut the collar itself but close enough to not leave a stub.
- For a skinny branch, say, less than 1 inch in diameter, find the sweet spot slightly beyond the branch collar, and then cut the branch at a 45-60 degree angle to the bark ridge.
- For a thicker branch, use the three-cut rule: about 10-15 inches up from the branch collar, cut halfway into the bottom of the branch. Next, move a couple inches up past that cut, and cut into the top of the branch, letting it fall. Lastly, make the final cut just past the branch collar.
How to trim a small tree
When you trim a small tree, the process of removing a branch remains the same, but other factors come into play.
- Make a plan for the branches you’ll cut and the ones you’ll keep. If you imagine your tree branches as hands on a clock, you should keep the branches that are growing at a 2 o’clock or 10 o’clock angle from the trunk and trim the branches that are growing at a wonky angle. Also, try to remove branches that are growing across the interior of the tree from one side to the other.
- Plan how much to cut. It’s recommended not to remove more than 25% of a tree’s canopy at one time.
Clean out the clutter. Trim away growth coming from the roots or base of the trunk. Prune out dead branches and twigs. Cut out water sprouts—those are weak, stringy branches that usually grow in clusters and sit perfectly upright on tree branches.
- If you have a younger tree, prune out limbs that are competing with the leader branch. More on that in this post about trimming young trees for good structure.
- Last up, prune branches using the steps above.
How DIY tree trimming can go wrong and kill the tree
One wrong cut won’t immediately kill your tree, but pruning incorrectly or too often can.
If a tree repeatedly loses too much of its canopy at one time, it can become weak or even die from the stress. That’s why you shouldn’t trim more than 25% of a tree’s canopy at one time.
Cutting the branch collar can also be a nasty error. Keeping the branch collar intact helps make sure the wound properly seals after being pruned, but if it’s injured, the wound could get infected by decay fungi that could further spread within the tree.
Lastly, cutting off the top of a tree can be a deadly mistake. Read about why topping is a danger to trees here.
Why you should avoid trying to trim a large tree
You may have noticed the theme here is all about trimming small branches and trees. There’s a reason for that!
Attempting to prune heavy branches or a tall tree is not recommended. Hiking up a ladder with pruning tools in hand can be very dangerous. You could lose your bearings and injure yourself, or worse, the ladder could fall over. The same goes for trimming heavy tree branches. If you don’t have a good handle on them, large branches could fall and injure you, your home or some part of your property. Plus, larger pruning jobs might call for a chainsaw or some other power tool, which would require a huge learning curve and extra precaution.
All that being said, you should never try to trim a tall tree by yourself.