Tall Tree Tales

Prime Time for Pruning

By Kathy JentzJust because all the leaves are now raked up and composted does not mean your tree care duties are done for the year. Trees need attention especially in mid-winter as this is actually the perfect opportunity to prune them.

According to the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), a nonprofit organization supporting tree care research and education around the world, “Trees are dormant in the winter, making pruning easier because you can better see a tree‘s structure when no leaves are on the branches. Without leaves it is easier to spot dead or broken branches that need to be removed in order to help avoid breakage resulting from harsh winter weather.”

Understanding of basic tree biology, sharp tools, and an artful eye are essential in deciding what and where to prune your trees. The certified arborists at the ISA suggest a few simple principles to understand before you start to prune: 

~ Prune with a purpose: Remove dead or diseased wood, provide clearance, or improve
~ Use proper technique: Improper cuts can cause long-term damage. 

~ Make small cuts: Creates less damage to the tree than large cuts. 

~ Make cuts just outside the branch collar: Allows for faster wound closer.
~ Do not leave stubs.
~ Only use sharp and clean tools.

Lew Bloch, a registered consulting arborist in the greater DC area, echoes that advice. “Never cut more than 25 percent of a tree at anyone time,” says Bloch. “And don’t prune a tree unless it needs it. Have a reason for doing so before you start.”


“The biggest no-no in pruning is topping large shade such as oaks, maples, and ashes,” chides Bloch. “People always seem to think that by topping the trees it will make them safer and it will actually make them more dangerous. Not only is it ugly, but the tree is more susceptible to insects, diseases, and sun-scald.”


According to Bloch, every big cut sends out a bunch of sprouts and suckers that are weakly attached and will eventually break of in 10-20 years. Sucker growth promotes heavy foliage growth which makes the tree more likely to blow over in a storm. “You should be pruning trees to thin then for their health,” recommends Bloch.

“Proper pruning is an important part of tree health maintenance,” according
to Jim Skiera, Executive Director of the ISA. “Every tree is different. Pruning
at the wrong time, pruning incorrectly, or pruning too much may create more problems
than not pruning at all,” says Skiera. When in doubt it is best to hire a professional
arborist to do the pruning for you.

If pruning a tree cannot be done without using power equipment or leaving the
ground, then it should be done by a certified arborist. Pruning of large
trees can be dangerous and should be performed by a professional. Bloch adds, “Hire a certified arborist who is insured and in Maryland they must be licensed as well.” (Virginia and DC do not have a licensing requirement.) For more tips on how to prune trees or to find a local certified arborist, visit

Another great tree information resource is Casey Trees. They are a local nonprofit that works to restore, enhance and protect the tree canopy of the nation’s capital by collaborating with residents, neighborhood organizations and agencies. Casey Trees (on the web at www.caseytrees.org) also works to ensure that policy makers include trees and green infrastructure as integral elements of community planning and development.



Kathy Jentz is Editor of Washington Gardener Magazine. This winter she is forcing two dozen apricot tulips as holiday gifts for friends — sh! 

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Photos all are (C) Kathy Jentz, Washington Gardener Magazine.



About the Author

Kathy Jentz
Kathy Jentz is editor of Washington Gardener magazine and is a long-time DC area gardening enthusiast. Washington Gardener is all about gardening where you live. She can be reached at @WDCgardener on Twitter and welcomes your local DMV gardening questions.