Tree Pruning Basics

Home Grown  by Keith Reed
We are approaching the ideal time of year to prune deciduous shade trees. (Deciduous meaning it loses its leaves in the winter). Although fruit trees can also be pruned now, pruning does slightly reduce cold hardiness, so it is generally advised to delay pruning for another eight to ten weeks to improve the chances for a successful fruit set next year.

We are fortunate in Payne County to have several professional tree care companies to choose from but if you decide to do your own work, please keep the following tips in mind.

First and foremost is safety. Tree pruning or removal can be dangerous in a number of ways. Always make sure you have a thorough understanding of proper chainsaw operation and maintenance. If any piece of equipment screams read the operator’s manual, it is the chainsaw. Not only will the manual provide helpful tips for keeping the saw itself in top shape, you will also learn proper technique to prevent injury from kickback, premature felling, or damage caused by swinging limbs.

Ladders can be almost as dangerous as chainsaws (and the combination of the two can cause nightmares). ALWAYS check for nearby power lines and other utilities. Also think about worse case scenarios when it comes to ladder placement. Ask yourself “what happens if I fall off” or “which way do I go if this limb falls and takes the ladder out”? This thought process should even be a part of tree work when you are standing on solid ground as large limbs can impart more damage than the untrained person could possibly imagine. Keep in mind that a cubic foot of wood can easily weigh 70-80 lbs. Recognize that it is easy to underestimate the size of a limb when you are looking at it from the ground level. Also, don’t overlook simple safety items like eye protection, long sleeves, and gloves. Once again, the operator’s manual can be your friend when it comes to chainsaws.

Shade trees should not be pruned just for the sake of pruning. Prune only on an as-needed basis. Examples include dead or diseased wood, suckers or “water spouts”, limbs crossing or rubbing on each other, and structural pruning for small trees.
OSU Fact Sheet HLA-6415 Training Young Shade and Ornamental Trees and Fact Sheet EPP-7323 Managing Storm-Damaged Trees provide detailed information on correct procedure.

At one time, it was thought that applying tar or pruning paint would help trees to heal properly. Research has shown this to be untrue. As long as a proper pruning cut is made, the tree will normally heal just fine, assuming it is otherwise healthy.

When pruning trees, you may occasionally cut into wood that is inhabited with ants. Think of ants as a bio indicator species, they are telling us something is happening. In this case, the tree already has significant decay. In other words, ants are not the problem; they are simply a symptom of the problem. Applying insecticides to kill the ants will not prolong the life of your tree.

For more information on this or any other horticultural topic, you can contact Keith Reed, the Horticulturist in the Payne County Extension office. Keith can be reached via email at
keith.reed@okstate.edu, phone at 405-747-8320, or in person at the Payne County Extension office, located at 315 W. 6th in Stillwater.

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