The first step in pruning a tree, before making and cuts to change the shape or size of a tree, is to remove any dead, diseased or broken branches. If removing a branch completely, it’s important to make the cut correctly so as to not cause any further damage to the tree.
Thinner branches around the thickness of your thumb or smaller, that is with a diameter of 20mm (3/4”) or less, can be removed with a sharp pair of secateurs or a two handed pruning lopper. Thicker branches can be carefully cut off with a pruning saw.
When removing branches, DO NOT make the pruning cut flush with the trunk or parent branch as this will damage the branch collar.
At the base of every branch is a distinct bulge where it connects to the trunk of the tree or an older branch, known as the branch collar.
The branch collar is comprised of interlocking layers of cells of the branch and the trunk, and it plays an important role in healing the wound left by the pruning cut, sealing it off to reduce decay and prevent the entry of disease pathogens. A correctly made pruning cut leaves the branch collar intact and undamaged.
On some trees the branch collars are large and clearly defined, making them easy to spot, while in other trees they may be harder to distinguish, but they’re always there, so always make branch removal cuts with the intention of preserving the branch collar.
Removing Branches Using Secateurs or Loppers
Thin branches can be removed with secateurs of loppers in a single cut. Most secateurs are rated for a branch thickness of 20mm (3/4”) and the largest ones made for gardeners with large hands can handle branches up to 25mm (1”) if you have sufficient hand strength to make the cut.
Secateurs are one-handed tools and you can get a bit of extra force squeezing with the second hand, but they have their limits. Loppers are basically larger two-handed versions of secateurs, requiring much less effort and strength to cut thicker branches. They have a branch thickness rating which is related to the length of their handles and any mechanisms which impart mechanical advantage, such as with cantilever or ratcheting loppers.
To make the cut, place the cutting blade side of the secateurs or loppers towards the side of the branch crown when making the cut, this prevents the flat part of the blade crushing the bark and plant tissue.
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Removing Branches With a Pruning Saw
When removing large branches with a pruning saw, three cuts are made to prevent tearing off the bark and damaging the tree as the branch comes off.
Undercut the branch a few inches away from the trunk to prevent bark tearing. Only cut part way through the bottom of the branch.
Move a short distance away from the first cut, further out on the branch and cut al the way through to remove the entire branch. This will eliminate the weight of the branch, allowing you to make the final pruning cut. If the falling branch tears the bark off the trees as it drops, the bark tear will stop at the first cut.
Start the third pruning cut on the outside edge of the branch-bark ridge and cut through the branch to the outside edge of the collar swelling on the underside of the branch. Remove only the branch; do not damage the trunk or branch collar.
When removing tree branches, don’t ever cut the branch flush with the trunk or parent limb, be sure to always leave a short stub, to preserve the branch collar so the tree can heal over the wound more easily.