Agronomy – Tree Pruning for the Amateur

Agronomy – Tree Pruning for the Amateur

Trees are an integral part of any golf course or residential landscape. Trees provide many benefits such as oxygen, erosion control, shade and habitat for a variety of wildlife just to name a few. Trees also come in a variety of shapes, sizes and characteristics. In fact, there are 319 species of trees listed in the Texas Big Tree Registry, 826 Species in the United States and over 100,000 species world-wide. That’s a lot of roots, trunks and limbs. This month’s ask the superintendent question is a tree question, “when is the best time of year to prune my trees? The fast answer is that generally winter (December – February) is the best time of year to prune your trees. This is when the sap flow is at its lowest of the year minimizing the stress on the tree post pruning. A good rule of thumb is to prune deciduous trees (trees that drop their leaves in fall and sprout new ones in the spring) after the Fall leaf drop and before spring buds/blooms develop. Evergreen trees (trees that keep their leaves/needles year-round) are also best pruned during this time. Before you head out for a quick nine let’s look a little deeper into trees and tree pruning.

I am an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborist and a Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) Certified Golf Course Superintendent a rare combination. I am often asked to evaluate trees for heath, value and their impact on turf and buildings. In over three decades of tree work beyond proper tree care (watering and fertility) I want property owners to understand two things. No. 1 please put the right tree in the right place and No. 2 please ensure that your trees are pruned correctly as part of regularly scheduled maintenance. If you get these two things right, you will maximize the value of your tree assets and minimize the expenses required to maintain these assets. 

Expanding on item No. 1 there are many species of trees to choose from when it comes to selecting trees for your home or business. Important factors to evaluate when choosing a tree for planting on your property include maturity height and width (large oaks grow from small acorns), soil preferences, light requirements (sun/shade), deciduous/evergreen, blooms/special foliage (Dogwoods and Magnolias are both flowering trees but are very different in size and light requirement), root zone needs and proximity to other assets such as buildings or parking spaces. If you plant a tree within 10’ of your garage and the tree has a maturity width of 30’ it is only a matter of time until the tree becomes a problem. The best way to prune a tree is plant it where it can mature naturally, planning trumps pruning 100% of the time. If you are not an expert make the investment to hire quality professionals (arborists, landscape architects etc.…) to help you select, plant and maintain your tree assets. 

Trees that are properly placed, planted and maintained will add beauty and value to your property for many years adding a sense of naturally beauty for you and the community. Once you have the right tree in place or in case you inherit problem trees at a new property then you will need some serious skills for safety and success when it comes to actually pruning trees. Correctly pruning trees is one of the cornerstones of tree care and is critical to managing tree health. We often need to timely remove dead, damaged or diseased (the three D’s) limbs to protect and/or enhance trees. You already know the correct time of year to prune your trees but here are a few quick bullet points to help you be surgically efficient and safe if you are handling your own tree pruning duties.

Make sure that you actually own the tree you are pruning, talk to your neighbor as needed

Every cut and every tree is unique and thus can be easy or tragic, be aware and be safe

Use the best safety equipment available such as chain resistant chaps, gloves, safety glasses, steel toed boots, ropes, gloves and hard hats. Be sure your equipment fits properly and is in good working order.

Identify the limbs or parts of the tree that need to be pruned starting with dead, damaged or diseased limbs and then other tree parts that may cause risk to nearby assets or tree shape

Make proper cuts, never cut beyond or into the ridge or branch collar (the swollen area where a limb connects to the tree trunk), these wounds will not heal properly and put the tree at risk

When cutting heavy or large limbs take the time to make three cuts. Cut No. 1 or the notch cut should be a small cut on the underside of the limb about 25% through the limb about a foot or so from the tree trunk. Then cut No. 2 is made a few inches away from the first cut towards the tip of the branch to actually remove the limb and finally cut No. 3 is made along the line or just outside the branch collar to remove the remaining stub cleanly. This process will prevent the weight of the limb from damaging the branch collar or trunk when falling and separating from the tree trunk and in time will heal or seal completely. 

Make sure nothing of value or no one (including pets) is near the landing area of falling limbs 

Follow manufacturers safety guidelines for all equipment especially chainsaws and pole saws 

Sharpen and sanitized your saws and pruners after each use (10% bleach solution works great)

Pruning sealer or paints are not necessary 

Dispose of tree debris properly and in accordance with city/county/state policies

Wrapping up our review of tree pruning I want to remind everyone that most tree experts will give free estimates and are fully insured so do some homework (always check references and ask for credentials from any potential contractor) before you hire someone or try a large pruning project on your own. Many property owners maintain their tree assets personally and responsibly. They take great pride in the trees appearance and the resourcefulness they use to maintain them. Lastly, I hope that you found these insights into tree pruning helpful. It is after all tree pruning season; Pruning shrubbery is a different matter entirely. Until next month be safe, play lots of golf, thank your golf course superintendent and continue to read AVIDGOLFER magazine.

Anthony L. Williams, CGCS, CGM is the Director of Golf and Landscape Operations at the TPC Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Dallas at Las Colinas, he is an award-winning environmental author with a degree in horticulture. Anthony can be reached at