Planting a tree is a long-term commitment. How you treat your tree in its early years determines its shape, strength, health, and lifespan. Properly pruning young trees is key to their development. Indeed, good pruning practices save you money in the long run by reducing the need for professional tree services. Moreover, it ensures a safer, healthier and more beautiful tree.
When pruning young trees many of the guidelines in our discussion of How to Prune apply. For example, the importance of sharp, clean, and appropriate cutting tools and of making proper cuts. However, young trees do have special needs to help them grow up big and strong.
Pruning Young Trees
Pruning should always have a purpose. In the case of young trees, it is to encourage strength and form. For instance, the Arbor Day Foundation offers an excellent illustrated guide of how pruning young trees (or not) will affect the tree’s shape and health with time. In short, trees properly pruned during their early years grow better and stronger than those simply planted and left on their own. Let’s learn why and how to prune young trees.
Prune for Strength
Firstly, at planting time your goal is to strengthen and expand the tree’s root system. This is helped by keeping as much leaf surface as possible. This makes sense as the tree uses its leaves to create food, which in turn nourishes its roots and branches. Therefore, in the first year of planting only damaged or dead limbs should be removed. When you should prune may depend on the type of tree. In most cases, winter pruning is best. However, you can check the Arbor Day Foundation for when to prune your tree species.
Remove Temporary Branches
Secondly, in the 3rd and 4th years after planting, begin removing temporary branches. Temporary branches are those below the lowest permanent branch. These are important for young trees as they protect the bark and encourage a strong trunk. However, temporary branches do need to be removed before they become too vigorous. Therefore, 3-4 years after planting, begin removing temporary branches over the course of 2-3 years.
Ensure Good Branch Angles
Next, be aware of narrow angles among branches. This signals a point of future weakness, whether in the trunk or crown. This is because, as the branches grow, neither one has enough space to add the wood needed for strength. Instead, they grow against each other. As you can imagine this is a recipe for disaster and will certainly require professional pruning or removal in the future. So, avoid this by removing one of the two branches. When pruning for strength, try to get branching angles that look like 10 or 2 o’clock.
Keep Watersprouts and Suckers at Bay
Watersprouts or suckers often grow up from the base or inside the crown of your tree. You’ll recognize them as quickly growing, very upright, and weakly attached branches. They should be removed as soon as possible after the first year.
Stop Rubbing Branches
Branches that rub each other can cause wounds and decay. Therefore, from the second year of growth, inspect your tree for rubbing branches. Then, remove one of the two branches. Easy!
Thin & Space Limbs
As your tree matures it will need thinning. This means removing some of the limbs that compete for space and light. For instance, in a young shade tree you want to aim for evenly spaced laterals, 8 to 12 inches apart. However, be aware that over-pruning can seriously harm your tree. So, always keep at least two-thirds of your tree as a live crown.
Chose the Leader
Finally, protect the ‘leader’ from competition. The leader in a shade tree is the middle limb that seems to drive the crown up. It is the central limb of the tree. When pruning young trees, if there
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