So here we are in the cold, finally seeing some snow. It is hard to think about wanting to go outside and do any yard work. This time of year, however, is one of my favorite times! We are now experiencing ideal times for tree and shrub trimming for a number of reasons. The first is the most obvious – the leaves are off the trees. This can be both an advantage and disadvantage.  With the leaves off, we cannot tell which branches are alive or dead. To me, this is less of a concern as I am more focused on bigger issues of tree shape and proximity to my house and outbuildings. Dead limbs can be trimmed at any time of year. What is advantageous is bare limbs allow us to get a good view of the tree as a whole and find the exact point we want to cut. It allows us to see the tree as a whole and not just a branch sticking out to one side. This way we are less likely to cut the “wrong” branch and end up with an oddly shaped tree.

Overgrown trees next to a house can lead to many costly repairs and possibly increased insurance costs. Photo by mrl2021.

The cold weather provides many additional advantages. For one, the tree is in a dormant state.  The flow of sap is toward the roots, so cutting will not harm the tree’s health now. When cut in the summer in full leaf, the sap may flow out of the tree and rob it of energy/nutrients. This can also attract many of the tree’s pests. The cold weather also provides solid ground for us to stand on, or put a ladder on. This gives us much more safety and stability when we attempt to cut some branches. The third reason I like cold weather cutting is that I do not have a lot going on outside in the garden. During other times of the year, I am very active in the vegetable and flower gardens while also trying to keep up with lawn maintenance. What generally ends up happening is that the tree trimming does not get done. Here in the winter, however, I have more time. The only exceptions is that I would not recommend trimming in deep snow. The obstructed view may prove dangerous when you are trying to set up a ladder. Another word of caution is to watch out for ice!

Not trimming the trees by your house, shed, barn, or other outbuildings can lead to many disasters! Not only that, but your insurance company many also increase your rates should they come out to inspect the property (a more common practice nowadays). Tree branches that touch the side of your house can damage it in multiple ways. The simplest is rubbing the paint or finish off of your siding. In the case of brick or aluminum siding, rubbing branches may leave some permanent marks in them as well, negatively affecting the appearance of your house when the tree is finally cut or if it dies/falls. In extreme cases, I have seen holes rubbed into wood siding, which may invite birds to nest, or even worse – squirrels (more on them in a minute). Hanging tree branches that touch your roof can ruin your shingles. Branches blowing in the wind can rub on the shingles and wear them away over time, or the branches may actually pry off or break shingles when blowing in a big storm. Even if the branches do not touch the shingles directly, they may shade the roof and not allow it to dry sufficiently. This moist situation can invite moss to grow, which breaks down your shingles through mechanical and chemical action. All these situations can lead to premature failure of the roof, which is a very costly repair. Lastly, branches touching or coming into close contact with a building may invite squirrels. Although cute looking, they cause a lot of destruction and costly damage. If you patch up one of their holes, they will simply and quickly chew another one. The best way to avoid this war is to prevent their access to your structures by keeping the branches beyond jumping distance (six feet or more). 

These woody shrubs rubbing on the garage can remove paint and wear away the wooden siding over time. Photo by mrl2021.

So many people worry about the “proper” way to trim trees. Although you will find no shortage of advice on the subject, in general there is no perfect way to trim. The worst thing you can do is nothing, and then have your buildings ruined. Trees will grow back over time, and any mistakes will soon disappear. Different types of fruit trees may have different ideas or patterns of cutting (consult a good fact sheet, book, or internet search for your specific type), but most of our trees are for landscaping. There are Japanese maples, weeping willows, and certain ornamental trees that have a specific shape. Be careful trimming these to preserve their growth pattern. Conifers should generally be left alone unless trimming is absolutely necessary. What I will talk about here is generalized cutting tips for deciduous trees (these lose their leaves in the fall) and shrubs.  To start off, cut away any branches that are coming into contact with the building. Rather than cut back each branch, it may be better to go back to a common node (growth point) from which all the branches sprout. In general, cut in a way that looks pleasing to the overall shape of the tree. Decide how you want things to look before you start, rather than making it up as you go along. I like to start by cutting out any branches that are growing toward the center of the tree or shrub and rubbing together. These can injure the tree and allow pests and/or diseases to enter.  Also, a pattern of a trunk with branches at the top works the best. Balance out the number of branches on each side. Leaving the lower part of the tree with short stubby branches is not too visibly appealing. Lower limbs should be cut back all the way to the trunk. When trimming a branch, it is a good idea to make a shallow cut underneath, and then move to the top of the branch and slightly outward toward the tip to make the actual trim cut. If done properly, when you are cutting through the branch and it starts to break off, it snaps off nice and clean instead of ripping bark off the remaining branch. One last note of caution – make sure you are not underneath the branches you are trimming.This way when limbs fall, they will not hit into your ladder, or anything/anyone else!

When you cut tree or shrub branches, you want to cut a significant amount off. For example, if I have a mature tree touching my house and I cut 6 inches of a branch off, by mid-summer the tree will have sent multiple new branches toward my house. Trees can be a little like the mythical hydra. Cut off one branch and two grow back into its place. This has to do with the meristem tissues. Basically speaking, when you cut off the apical meristem (tip), the two lateral meristems at the previous node (growth points) will sprout. So, with all that in mind, when you cut a branch back on a mature tree, you should decide how many feet you want to cut off, not inches. There is only real exception to the late fall/early winter trimming. Do not trim azaleas, rhododendrons, forsythias, or other early spring flowering shrubs. They set their flower buds late in the year for the following spring. If trimmed at this time, you will essentially be cutting off flower buds. Too much trimming will leave a very lopsided bloom, or no blooms at all. These plants are best trimmed right after they get done flowering. Hopefully you can find the time!          

These Rhododendrons are best trimmed in the spring after flowering. The dormant flower buds can be seen at the tips of the branches. Photo by mrl2021.

There are more tools than a person would know what to do with for trimming trees. I will discuss some of my favorites here. While hand-held pruning shears are nice, they will not really be very effective. Most of the branch diameters that you will trim will be larger than they can cut through. The basic, most useful tool is the two handled loppers. The long handles give the leverage needed to more easily cut through larger diameter branches. These come in two styles: anvil and bypass. The anvil type has a blade that comes down and rests on the solid piece below (anvil). I do not like these as they have a tendency to crush the stems, and sometimes do not completely cut through the branch. The bypass type has the blade cut past the bottom non-moving blade. These seem to work very well and make for nice cuts. Make sure to keep the blade sharp! There are a number of sharpeners for sale to help with this. 

The hand held pruners (left) are not really big enough for tree and shrub work. The bypass loppers (right) make the work much easier. Photo by mrl2021.

A number of people like bow saws. These are great for cutting down Christmas trees as the construction allows the blade to flex a little while using it. Another advantage is the blades are easily replaced. It usually takes a bit of effort to use them, and I tend to prefer a pruning saw instead. The pruning saws have a lot of really sharp teeth in multiple directions that allows the cutting to happen rather quickly. I find these take a lot less effort to use, and they stay sharp for many years.

The bow saw (top) is best for cutting down Christmas trees. The pruning saw makes trim work quick and much easier than traditional saws. Photo by mrl2021.
A close up of the sharp, multidirectional teeth on a pruning saw. Photo by mrl2021.

For tall trees or high limbs, there are pole saws. This tool’s name is also its description. It consists of a saw on the end of a long pole. Usually you end up positioning the blade on the tree limb and then pull a rope to get the saw to cut. Better yet is an electric or gas powered pole saw.  This is essentially a mini chainsaw on the end of a long pole. These are much easier to use, but as would be expected cost more money. Many times you can buy an extra extension piece to allow for a longer reach. Be careful of falling limbs when using pole saws. The use of a hard hat is recommended. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use and safety concerns.

A gas powered pole saw. Photo by mrl2021.

The last few tools are much more expensive and increasingly more dangerous to use. Recently, the major hand-held power tool companies have come out with one handed Sawzall battery operated tools. There are special pruning blades that can be used in these that will make short work of your trimming duties. One of the newest tools is a mini battery powered chainsaw that you operate one handed. These would be used for smaller diameter pruning options. Last, but not least, is a good old-fashioned chainsaw. These may be gas or battery powered. They need to have oil to lubricate the chain. These cut through lumber like butter (unless your chain gets dull).  They are much easier to use, but very dangerous. If you choose this option, make sure to educate yourself on proper chainsaw safety. In some situations, this tool may be too large for the job.       

A gas powered chainsaw. This tool may be too big for many of our trimming projects. Photo by mrl2021.

Well hopefully this helps you get motivated to use this cold weather downtime to get some yardwork done! Many of these items would make for great holiday gifts for an avid gardener or landscape enthusiast. These items can be found at most big box stores, hardware stores, equipment dealers, and even some online retailers. There is nothing better than the proper equipment when you have job to do. Happy trimming! 

Matt Lisy