The Different Types of Pruning Techniques: A Beginner’s Guide

Trees are a pretty essential component of any garden, right?

But unfortunately for us, they require a little more maintenance than you might think.

Enter the world of tree pruning.

What are the different types of pruning and which should you use?

Keep reading and I’ll tell you!


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What is Pruning?

Pruning is the strategic, deliberate removal of branches from a tree.

But did you know that there are right and wrong ways to prune a tree?

If you do it wrong, you could cause irreversible damage to the tree. If you do it right, you can encourage healthy grow in a way that will promote fruit production for fruit trees, while helping to keep pests and disease at bay for all trees.

There are 5 main types of pruning:

  1. Formative Pruning: Pruning to promote a well-balanced growth formation over the entirety of the tree.
  2. Crown Lifting: The removal of lower branches to increase ground clearance.
  3. Crown Reduction: Pruning to reduce the overall height and size of the tree.
  4. Crown Thinning: The removal of excess branches without affecting the overall size of the tree.
  5. Cleaning: The removal of dead, damaged or diseased branches.

Why Prune?

The importance of pruning will vary for you based on whether the tree in question is an ornamental or fruit tree, and its location on your property.

It’s beneficial to prune fruit trees if you want to increase fruit yields, ensure even ripening, ensure easy access to fruit for harvesting, and reduce the risk of pests and disease taking hold.

man pruning a tree

It’s beneficial to prune other trees if they are getting to a size that is dangerous for people, vehicles or surrounding infrastructure, or if you want to train the tree into a certain shape for aesthetic purposes.

Both fruit trees and ornamental trees benefit from the removal of dead branches and suckers, or young growth at the base of the tree which uses up energy reserves.

How to Prune a Fruit Tree

It’s possible to fill a whole book with methods of pruning fruit trees and proper pruning techniques.

It’s both an art and a science, so I’ll only be able to cover the basics here. But this should be enough to get you started, and provided you don’t make any huge mistakes, your fruit tree should still be better off than if you hadn’t attempted any pruning.

Strictly speaking, different types of fruit trees like to be pruned at different times of the year. So, its best to check out the specifics for the fruit tree that you want to prune before you get started. But in saying that, fall is a pretty safe bet for most trees.

Some people also think that different fruit trees do better with different methods of pruning. Like I said – I could fill a book! However, the points below should stand you in good stead for common varieties of apples, pears and stone fruit.

Stand Back

It’s important to remember that pruning a tree is something you don’t get a do-over with. You need to get it right the first time.

So, the first step is to stand back and get a good look at the overall shape of your fruit tree. Do a lap around it and identify which branches look central to the tree’s shape, and which could afford to go.

This is by far the hardest part of the whole process.

There are a couple of things you want to keep in mind:

  • Eventually, a small bird should be able to fly through the tree without crashing into any branches. If this is possible, it means that there is enough light and airflow for a happy, healthy tree.
  • Branches that are growing horizontally or only slightly upwards may break under the weight of lots of fruit so it makes sense to remove these and encourage branches that grow at angles of around 10 am and 2 pm on a clock face.

Use the Right Tools and Make Clean Cuts

In order to allow the tree to heal as quickly as possible and not be exposed to diseases, you should ensure that the tools you use are sharp and clean.

Some people recommend a quick soaking in isopropyl alcohol or diluted bleach to make sure that the blade isn’t harboring any disease that could be passed on to the tree.

tree pruning with garden scissors

It’s also helpful to wear gloves. As well as protecting your hands from chafing, they can help to maintain a better grip on whatever tool you’re using.

Get Rid of the Dead Wood, Watersprouts, and Suckers

Before you make any big decisions about removing dead branches, it helps to do a little housekeeping first.

  • Get rid of any dead or dying branches, especially any that are diseased.
  • Also, remove any suckers or young shoots growing out of the base of the tree or lower down the trunk.
  • Lastly, look for any shoots that are very straight and are growing directly upwards from a branch. These are water sprouts and not useful – get rid of them.

Get Rid of Horizontal or Vertical Growth

Thin out the total number of branches (remember, we want a little bird to be able to fly through) by removing any branches that aren’t growing in a nice orientation to the main trunk. Think, anything horizontal, vertical or crossing paths with another branch.

If you’ve done this and things are still looking pretty dense then you can think back to your first appraisal at step 1 and choose some bigger branches to remove.

Trim the Tips

In order to promote plenty of lush, thick growth with the potential for lots of fruit, you want to trim off the tips of all of the branches, removing about a third of the previous season’s growth.

If you don’t want your tree to get any bigger, then obviously you can remove more. But go easy, pruning too hard can result in a sick tree.

Seal Wounds if Necessary

Depending on the time of year that you have pruned, you may need to seal the cuts with some water-based paint or pruning paste.

How to Prune an Ornamental Tree

Usually, when it comes time to prune a tree on your property that isn’t a fruit tree, it’s because it has reached a size that is no longer safe or manageable. For this reason, it’s a good idea to call a professional arborist to take care of the job with the appropriate equipment and safety measures.

You may understand the basics of pruning, but climbing a 20’ tree with a handsaw in one hand, or worse, a chainsaw, is a recipe for disaster. If you have someone who can help hold a ladder and you can be sure that the falling branches are small enough to not cause any serious harm to people or property then the job might be a suitable DIY project.

Even better still, use a pole saw and take out the need for a ladder altogether! (I have a guide to the best pole saws here.) But when it comes to tree pruning, it’s a good idea to imagine the worst-case scenario and then err on the side of caution.

Assuming you’ve decided the job is small enough to tackle on your own, what do you need to know?

If you’re pruning a specific branch (or lopping the top off) because it’s in danger of breaking in a storm or coming into contact with infrastructure like power poles, then that simplifies things.

If you’re pruning to promote an ideal aesthetic, it’s a little more complicated.

You can use the same steps as for fruit tree pruning above, but with less thinning. You definitely don’t need a small bird to be able to fly through the middle of an ornamental tree.

You also want to be sure to regularly stand back and get a good look at the tree in its entirety. Try to visualize what it would look like with a certain branch removed before you make any drastic cuts.

Understanding these principles of pruning should help you out a lot in knowing where to start and how to approach things when it comes to trees.

But what about bushes and shrubs?

Luckily for you, bushes and shrubs are much, much simpler! They are very forgiving, so generally speaking, if you make a mistake you can just wait for it to grow back!

Most of us want nice, dense foliage in our bushes and pruning can actually help you to achieve this.

Remember to regularly stand back to get a good perspective of the whole bush to make sure you’re not pruning really unevenly.

You’ll also achieve the bushier bush if you allow the size of the bush to grow more gradually. If your bush has had a growth spurt with lots of leggy new branches, taking only the tips off might not help this new growth fill out. You’re better off cutting it back further to just a little larger than the previous season.

Pruning Sheers on a log

Last but not least, using the right tools for the job will make everything much, much easier!

There are a few different options when it comes to pruning bushes. I’ve got guides to the best hedge shears and the best garden shears to get you started.


Hopefully, you’re familiar with the different types of pruning available to you now. Just remember to take it slowly and think twice before each cut!

Do you feel confident that you’ll be able to tackle the next pruning job yourself?

I look forward to hearing how it goes! Feel free to share your results with me in the comments below!

Andy Gibson

My name's Gibson. Andy Gibson. I like to think of myself as the Bond of the backyard, that is if yard work ever became sexy. I write about everything about indoor and outdoor gardening and the dread-it-but-still-need-to-do-it chores around the yard, like cleaning out the gutter guards.

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