Have You Ever Wondered How To Prune A Tree Properly?

Hard pruning your tree, in nearly all cases, will cause rapid stress regrowth as shown in the picture below. The new growth, often referred to as ‘water shoots’ is poor in quality and very straight in form. It grows from just underneath the bark, from around the wound site and is caused by the remaining stubs of timber trying to re-establish a food supply.


It gives off a very unnatural look that resembles broomsticks in the tree. 


Worse than the unnatural appearance, this kind of work (often referred to as ‘topping’ or ‘lopping’) causes rot pockets to form at wound sites because cuts made mid stem or mid branch remain open, as trees are only able to heal wounds made at branch collars (explained below).



The new stress growth/water shoots form a goblet around the wound that holds wet leaves and water, which enables rot to penetrate the remaining timber. 

The other major issue with this kind of work is that the new branch formation around the wound site is weak and likely to fail in
the unpredictable UK weather, especially if it is allowed to grow too tall.


As you can see cutting trees in this way causes hazards at height and effectively creates a maintenance issue moving forward.


The tree surgeon has to climb beyond these weak points to prune the higher parts of the tree.

Proper Pruning:

Trees can heal wounds at branch collars most effectively (a slightly rippled area around the base of each branch where it fuses to another branch or the main stem).

When we make cuts back to these collars there is no remaining stub of timber, trying to survive so we don’t get sprays of stress growth. The branch collar naturally begins to heal and prevent pathogens from entering the tree.

Below we can see this pruning wound during healing.

We call this healing process ‘occlusion’. It takes a long time and a lot of the tree’s energy resources to heal the wounds completely.


When tree pruning is done properly, cutting the wounds back to branch collars allows the tree to naturally begin the process of healing, leaving reduced energy for growth as supplies are exhausted feeding the tree and fuelling the healing process. We are effectively stunting the growth of the tree via selective wounding. This is exactly how bonsai works, but on a larger scale. Pruning every 3 – 5 years in this way, enables trees to be restricted to a maximum spread and ensure they do not grow out of context with their location.


We advise and encourage what is known as ‘natural target pruning’. This means pruning each limb back to a branch with foliage, these are also referred to as a growing point. Growing points must be substantial enough to supply the pruning wound with energy to heal. Leaving sufficient growing points means most small to medium sized wounds will eventually heal completely.


Pruning back to growing points is essential for three reasons:


1)      It facilitates healing which slows down future growth but most importantly protects the tree from pathogens and decay 

2)      The tree retains a natural and attractive crown as each branch still has a tip with foliage

3)      Stress regrowth is minimised so pruning lasts a lot longer, reducing future maintenance cost 

This sycamore has been dramatically thinned and reduced to allow more light to appease the neighbouring properties. All the cuts have been made back to substantial enough growing points to supply energy for healing. The natural form of the trees branch structure has been preserved because the branches still have tips and rapid stress regrowth has been minimised because no stumps without foliage have been created. These are the essential principles of natural target pruning

Any good tree surgeon will be able to reassure you that they understand the principles of proper tree pruning and that are quoting for pruning to the recommended British Standard BS3998:2010. The standard is set out simply to help keep trees healthy, and looking natural and also to extend the time period between pruning work.

Tree preservation orders and conservation areas are not intended to prevent tree pruning. They are intended only to ensure that the amenity value of trees, that are considered to be part of the heritage of an area, are protected from inappropriate and poor pruning.

Once a tree officer knows tree pruning will be in line with the BS3998:2010 recommendations, they are always happy to grant applications to prune trees. This is especially the case if they finish up looking like this beautiful horse chestnut we have crown reduced via thinning technique and crown lifted – both using the principles of ‘natural target pruning’ inline with the BS3998:2010 standard.


Tell your tree surgeon you don’t want lopping or topping and ask to see pictures of their natural target pruning work to ensure you have chosen the right contractor. If your trees have already been badly pruned, make sure they are maintained every two or 3 years to prevent stress regrowth from becoming hazardous.



Thanks for reading.


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