Pruning With Purpose


There’s a giant in your yard. Each day it gets a little bigger and hungrier until eventually it threatens to overtake your property. But unlike the giants in fairy tales, this one is going to take more than a beanstalk to get rid of. And you’re probably not willing to part with it anyway.

It’s your tree, and while you probably don’t think about it half the time--except in the summer when it shades your house and the fall when its leaves fill your trash--it’s going to need some TLC, probably sooner rather than later.

Autumn is traditionally tree pruning time in Southern California, when homeowners look up into the branches while raking leaves and wonder how their trees got so big.

“In the fall we usually get the Santa Ana winds blowing through, and people start getting worried that a branch will go flying through a window,” says Ed Archibald of V&E; Tree Service in Orange. “Fall and winter are good times for pruning deciduous trees, or those that lose their leaves in autumn, and citrus trees, because their sap is down.”


Southern California yards are a virtual arboretum of trees from around the world that have taken to our mild climate. You can find pines and conifers of all types, as well as palms, sycamores, maples and others.

There are the trees we love, like a stately old oak, and the ones we love to hate, like a tall, gangly eucalyptus.

“Eucalyptus trees are messy, and many people don’t like them, which is interesting because there are so many of them,” Archibald says. “They’re good accent trees best planted in areas where they can be free to grow. But they must be trimmed at least every two years.”

Eucalyptus trees are susceptible to limb drop, which is a dangerous hazard in warm weather. Heat pulls the sap and moisture up into the trees until finally, a limb that previously looked just fine suddenly breaks off.


“Eucalyptus wood is very heavy, and you will be hurt by it if it falls on you,” he says.


Some trees need annual trimming because they grow so quickly. “Common species like ficus, pepper trees and carrotwood need maintenance once a year to keep them in check,” says Bill Jacob of Bill’s Tree Service in Yorba Linda. “Pines, sycamores and ash trees can go for longer periods between prunings.”

Palms primarily require the cutting off of dead fronds. Working on a palm, especially one that hasn’t been maintained, is never an enjoyable job for a trimmer.

“The large date palms have wide, thick thorns that can really jab you if you’re not careful,” Jacob says.

Tree trimming is tricky, hazardous and expensive. A good trimmer tries to thin the branches, letting more light through, while allowing the tree to conform to its natural shape.

“It’s a matter of thinning them out in the middle and then tipping them back,” Jacob says. “This means shaping them a little on the top so they don’t take over the yard.”

While tipping gives the tree a needed trim, watch out for the pruner who suggests topping. This is the equivalent of butchery, where large limbs are sawed off without any thought as to how the tree will grow in the years ahead.


Selecting a trimming service can be as daunting as climbing a 50-foot oak. There are numerous individuals and companies that claim to have tree trimming expertise, which could mean that they’re certified arborists and licensed contractors, or that they have a ladder and some saws.

“There are a lot of people out there who think they know what they’re doing and they don’t,” says Frank Angull of Arborwest Associates in Orange.

Tree trimmers generally charge by the hour for their services, since each tree and location usually has its own unique obstacles. “Until you see the tree you don’t know what kind of equipment you’ll need,” Archibald says. “Is it close to the house or other structures? Has it been well maintained in the past? Will a crane be needed? These are all factored into the estimate.”

Rates can vary widely, from $25 to $60 per hour, but buyer beware is the key to shopping for trimmers. “Check to see if they have a contractors license and call the state board to see if it’s valid,” Angull says. “Do they have insurance? The minimum for them to carry is $1 million, but a better firm will carry more. These are things that are part of the cost, but don’t forget that trimming involves working way up in the air. People and property can get damaged.”

Trimmers have horror stories of falls and near spills, cuts from sharp thorns and even encounters with nasty tree rats. “A good trimmer will use whatever equipment is necessary to make the job as safe as possible,” Archibald says. “Accidents happen, but you try to minimize risk as much as you can.”

Most trees, especially smaller ones, are trimmed by the homeowner. If your tree pruning experience is limited, it’s helpful to know a little about how a professional approaches a tree.

“You want to make structural pruning cuts,” Angull says. “That way, as the tree gets bigger, you won’t have to cut away large branches; they’re already gone. Cut away cross growth, or branches that are crossing each other while they’re small. The goal when pruning is long term. Make small cuts now so you don’t have to make large cuts later.”

In an overgrown tree, first look for dead and dying branches. Use a pruning saw, which has a curved blade attached to a pole that lets you make accurate cuts about 5 feet above your head. A small stepladder can be used to provide additional reach, but take care not to lose your balance.


One way homeowners get hurt while pruning is by not being aware of how heavy some tree branches are. “The average person has no idea how much weight is being suspended in the air on a tree,” Archibald says. “Looks can be deceiving.”

Long limbs should be cut in small sections first, or should be suspended with ropes before cutting.

Overall, a good pruning job should reduce the trees’ branches by no more than a third, and the tree’s natural shape should be preserved.

Thinning cuts made at the point of attachment are done to remove dead and crossing branches. They can also be made to increase light penetration to the ground and reduce the weight of heavy limbs.

Cutting away roots that threaten sidewalks and fences used to be a common tree trimming technique, but it’s generally no longer recommended. “Cities used to cut roots to prevent sidewalk damage, but they found that they later had problems with trees falling over,” says Angull.


Root systems provide the structural platform that supports the tree. If a major root is cut, the tree may not survive the next big windstorm.

Correcting root problems is a long-term project. “Trees need a lot of watering at a low volume over a long period of time,” says Angull. “Typically, homeowners will water their grass for five to 10 minutes and figure that’s good enough for their trees as well. However, with trees you really need to saturate the ground around them for two to three hours to make sure that water is getting very deep into the ground.”

Many tree problems are the result of poor planning. A large ash that was a beautiful sapling next to your bedroom window 15 years ago now may have roots that threaten the foundation.

“Much of this goes back to placement of the tree,” Jacob says. “If you have a big open area, it’s fine to plant an ash or a liquidambar that can spread out. In a smaller space or near the house, you should consider a birch or crape myrtle.”

Before planting trees or installing landscape, consult with a trimmer. “We can save people a lot of money and headaches by advising them on where to place their trees,” Archibald says. “We can tell you what the tree is going to look like in 10 years.”

Here are the priorities professional arborists use to decide how and where to cut:



* Dense growth: Thin out closely spaced branches to improve symmetry and increase light and airflow. Leave enough foliage to protect trunk and limbs from sunburn.

* Crossed branches: These rub together, causing chronic wounds and disease. They also distract from proper symmetry.

* Narrow crotch angle: Branches connected to the trunk in a V-shaped angle are weaker than those forming a U-shaped connection.

* Diseased or insect-infested wood. After cutting diseased wood, disinfect your tools with rubbing alcohol before moving on to the next tree.

* Broken branches: These tear off and leave jagged wounds, making the tree susceptible to disease and improper growth patterns.

* Weak growth: Remove branches that are spindly and less vigorous, including suckers and water sprouts. Suckers should be trimmed off where they attach to he tree’s root.


* Obstructed views: Trim back branches blocking views of street signs, intersections and driveways.

* Dead branches: Remove promptly as these are likely to fall and cause injury or property damage.

* Overgrowth: In addition to being a fire hazard, branches touching or overhanging a structure invite termites and damage from falling limbs.

* Branches growing into utility lines: Aluminum ladders and metal pruning equipment pose an electrocution hazard. Contact the appropriate utility company before trimming.


* Where to cut: Never leave a stub. Always cut just above an outward-facing growth bud or stem.

* How to cut: Prune at a 45-degree angle, with the lowest point just above the top of a growth bud. When using shears, the cutting blade goes on top, closest to the plant. The hook is always on the bottom, angled slightly away from the plant.

* Thinning cut: Remove entire length of branch, but leave the protective branch collar or bark ridge intact to protect tree from infection. Purpose: Improves health and symmetry.

* Heading cut: Cutting back to remove weak or unproductive growth, to shape a plant or to stimulate fruit or flower production.

* Removing large limbs:

The weight of a large limb will cause it to tear off before it is completely cut, leaving a ragged tear. Removing the limb in segments results in a clean, healthy cut:

1. Position saw about a foot from trunk and cut halfway through limb from underneath.

2. Position saw on top of the branch beyond the first cut. The branch will snap off cleanly after you have sawed about halfway through.

3. Make final cut close to trunk, leaving branch collar or bark ridge intact.

Sources: Arborwest Services; “Gardening and Landscape Techniques,” edited by Barbara W. Ellis, Rodale Press; “Pruning’ by Robert Kourik, Workman Publishing (Smith & Hawkin Hands-On Gardener Series); Sunset Western Garden Book by the editors of Sunset Books and Sunset Magazine, Lane Publishing Co.; National Arborists Assn.

Graphics reporting by JANICE JONES DODDS/Los Angeles Times

Tree Removal

* Blocked view: Such a tree does not have to be removed. A professional arborist can cut natural-looking “windows” into the canopy to restore a prized view.

* Concrete conflict: Roots can cause serious damage to home foundations, driveways and patios. Chopping the offending roots may cause the tree to fall or become diseased. In most cases, either the tree or the concrete has to go.


Sharp, clean cuts heal faster and are better for trees. Clean tools after every use, store them indoors and keep them sharpened.


Covering pruning wounds with tar, pitch or other dressings is no longer recommended.

Books For More Information

* “Gardening and Landscape Techniques,” edited by Barbara W. Ellis (Rodale Press)

* “Pruning,” by Robert Kourik (Workman Publishing; Smith & Hawkin Hands On Gardener Series)

* Sunset Western Garden Book, by the editors of Sunset Books and Sunset Magazine (Lane Publishing Co.)


This story has been edited to reflect a correction to the original published text. The correct spelling for a certain tree type is liquidambar.

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