After a particularly rough winter in many parts of our country, Mother Nature has finally awakened from her long winter nap and spring is in full swing. The weather is getting warmer, the days are getting longer, and plants and flowers are blooming. For landscape contractors, this is a great time to think about pruning small trees. The best time for pruning is in the spring, when trees begin leafing out, and in the fall, when the trees begin to drop their leaves.

However, and this is very important, tree trimming should always be done with both feet on the ground, unless you’re a skilled arborist; landscape crew members should never climb trees to prune them. Hidden objects can conceal themselves in the branches and other dangers can cause harm to the climber or those down below.

For example: a landscape crewman goes up into a tree to trim out some thick branches and fails to realize where the branches will fall. These branches could land on parts of the property, or on his fellow crewmates. Also, if he isn’t harnessed into the tree correctly, he runs the risk of falling and injuring himself. Most importantly, if he isn’t aware of the surrounding power lines, he could cut a branch that lands on a power line, leaving him prone to shock. Even worse, if he’s using an aluminum ladder, the crewman who’s holding the ladder steady will also receive a shocking surprise.

So what’s the solution for avoiding these types of accidents? Keep your feet on the ground. Landscape crews should only do their pruning from the ground. There are too many potential risks when going up into a tree. Work that involves ladders and climbing should be reserved for arborists. They have the training and proper equipment to prune the higher branches . . . and the skills.

“You always have to be aware of your surroundings,” says Lee Heidle, owner of Yards by Design, Frisco, Texas. “If the tree is really close to or in the power lines, we won’t prune them. It’s best to have the electric company or an arborist come out and prune those away. It’s just safer to do that.”

Why and when to prune

The reasons for pruning may fall into one or more categories: the limbs could be hazards for homes or people; the tree has health-related issues like dead limbs or pest problems; or it needs pruning purely for aesthetics. Overgrown trees can also overburden some landscapes with their thick branches.

“They sometimes get real dense and completely crowd out the sun,” says Heidle. “If you’ve got grass under the trees, it’s going to kill just about every bit of it. We come in and thin them out so the sunlight can come through.”

Thinning out branches also serves a purpose in avoiding wind damage. When you have large, thick branches, the wind can be a big problem. If gusts are strong, the branches can rip, damaging the tree, or they could fall off and damage what’s beneath it. Thinning out the branches takes weight off the tree, and lets the wind blow through, decreasing the chances of this happening.

“When pruning trees, you direct the growth,” says Mario Vaden, landscape technician and certified arborist in Portland, Oregon. “You’re not just restricting and chopping off one side, you’re literally selecting and developing leaders in the tree. You plan and use this leadership to direct the tree to where you want it to go; it’s management. Pruning a tree encourages its growth and also keeps it healthy.”

It’s also important to consider the season in which you do the pruning. As stated before, spring and fall are the ideal seasons for pruning. “If there’s a so-called ‘perfect’ time of year to prune, it would be right after the leaves come in, or right after the leaves drop off,” says Vaden. By pruning at the appropriate times of the year, you can avoid unneeded stress to the tree.

“The preference is always in the cooler months because it’s less stressful on the trees,” says Heidle. “If you prune during the summer, the hot temperatures put a lot more stress on the tree and you can actually cause it to die.”

Avoiding any unnecessary stress on a tree is of utmost importance for the tree to remain healthy and grow properly, especially if it is planted in a suburban or city setting. Trees in the city and suburban areas have to deal with increased heat from concrete, brick and stone in a contained growing space.

The age of the tree will also have an effect on pruning as well. It’s easier to prune younger, smaller trees, as compared to the older, larger ones. Older trees tend to have larger diameter limbs, which makes cutting more difficult. Many of these thicker limbs can still be cut from the ground, but will require a little more effort. When dealing with older trees, it might be wise to consult with an arborist.

Sharpen your cutting skills

The skills—some say art— required for tree pruning involve knowledge of the tree as well as aesthetics, ideally, to make correct, accurate cuts so as not to harm the integrity of the tree. Improper cuts can leave a tree damaged and even affect its growth. It’s easier to make clean cuts when cutting smaller branches; when cutting the larger branches, more caution is needed. This is where the three-point cut becomes your friend.

“In the three-point cutting system, the first cut is made underneath the branch, about one to18 inches outside the branch collar,” says Brad Mace, product manager at ECHO Inc. “Some people cut underneath the branch first so the branch doesn’t crack before they get through it. The branch collar is the limb point of attachment to the trunk. This first cut will prevent a falling branch from tearing away stem tissue as it falls.”

The second cut is made beyond the first cut, this time on top of the branch. This cut should go all the way through the branch, leaving just a short stub. The last cut is made just outside the branch collar.

The last cut should also go all the way through the branch, removing it from the trunk. Using this proper cutting technique will lead to healthier tree growth and prevent tree decay and branch cracking.

Making these types of cuts is considered simple for those with experience, but a man is only as good as the tool he uses. Hand pruners, loppers and pruning saws are the best tools to use on smaller branches when pruning from the ground. For pruning larger trees with thicker branches, the ideal tool is the pole saw. Pole saws help extend your reach and are great for making three-point cuts. Some even have extendable or telescoping shafts. These types of poles give you a longer reach and will keep you farther away from falling tree branches.

“It’s better to have a pole pruner that’s longer rather than shorter,” says Vaden. “If you have a shorter one, it can cause you to have to stand more directly underneath what you’re cutting. If you have a longer one, it allows you to make the cut easier and also removes you from being underneath what you’re dropping because you stand farther back.”

For safety’s sake, it may be wise to invest in a pole saw that’s made out of fiberglass and has a telescoping shaft. Fiberglass poles are resistant to electricity and will prevent any unfortunate accidents with power lines. It is also important to wear goggles and a hardhat while working.

A powerful alternative

Pole saws may work fine for some landscape companies, but others may want an alternative tool, maybe one with a little more power. The solution would be a power pruner. These pruners are powered by a motor and essentially are fiberglass poles with small chain saws attached to the end. Using this power tool makes pruning much easier.

“They’re basically chainsaw blades on the end of a pole,” says Heidle. “Make sure you buy the commercial grade. They are a little bit more expensive, but they have a longer reach, 12 to 14 feet. It makes it a lot easier because you don’t have to actually move the pole. You just get up there and make clean cuts.”

A power pruner does cut down on the time it takes to prune a tree. Instead of sawing back and forth, the chainsaw blades make cleaner cuts. This eliminates any extra effort you would have to put in with pole saws.

“The big problem you run into when pruning is branches falling down, and you want to make sure they aren’t falling on top of you,” says Mace. Using a power pruner with telescoping shafts will cut down on these risks. Just like with telescoping pole saws, having a longer reach allows you to cut taller branches and gives you a big enough buffer to avoid hazards.

Say “No” to topping

When it comes to tree topping, Heidle says, “Don’t do it. Topping a tree is a no-no in the tree industry.” Topping is cutting the trunk or large branches from the top of the tree in order to make it smaller and slimmer. This is usually a last-ditch effort for residents who think their trees are growing too high. Instead of pruning them properly, the customer might request that you top off the tree to make it smaller. Topping a tree may seem like a quick fix, but the practice can damage the tree and leave it misshapen.

“We’ve got live oaks, red oaks and other varieties that when they’re all grown and full, they’re 50 to 80 feet tall,” says Heidle. “They start out small and people think they are supposed to be ornamental or decorative trees. So when they start getting bigger, they think they’re too big and they want to cut them like shrubs. They cut the top main branch, and that limb will shoot off all these sucker growths; it almost deforms the look of the tree. Even five or ten years after somebody tops a tree, you can look at it and tell. It never looks the same.”

You should always feel comfortable about your abilities and know your limits before taking on a job. If you’re unsure about a particular job, consult with an arborist. As the saying goes, “Better safe than sorry,” especially when the stakes can be high. Keeping your customers and your reputation is always the bottom line.