Tree Pruning: The Best/Worst Thing You Could Ever Do To A Tree

Posted onCategoriesBad practices, Best Pruning Practices, Conservation, Pruning
This mature Silver Maple has been partially topped.

Do you want to know the easiest way to have a healthier tree? Prune it. Do you want to know the easiest way to damage that same tree? Prune it. Normally I wouldn’t want to start a blog post with a contradiction but, in this case, I had no choice. The late Dr. Alex Shigo, a biologist and plant pathologist with the United States Forest Service often said that pruning may be the best thing we can do for a tree and the worst thing we can do for a tree. Like anything else, it is all about timing. From the time of planting all the way into its maturity there is a right way and a wrong way to prune a tree. There is also a right time of year and a wrong time of year to prune depending on the species : especially in Michigan.

So, how can you make sure that the care you are giving your trees is the right kind? Well, read on friends because that’s exactly what we are going to go over in this post.

First: Identify…

Identify, Identify. Find out the BIG 3:

  • Genus/Species
  • What stage of its life the tree is in
  • Reason for pruning


If you need help identifying your tree send us a picture to or bring one to your local nursery and talk to one of the horticulturists there. This info is crucial because some species can ONLY be pruned SAFELY in their dormant period. For instance, in Michigan, Oaks and American Elms are only pruned in the winter. The spring and summer months give rise to fungi and insects. Oaks are at high risk of being infected with Oak Wilt (Ceratocystis fagacearum) and Elms with Dutch Elm Disease (Ophiostoma Ulmi) if they have open wounds during the warm months.

Life Stage:

Sapling/ Young Trees: Your goal during this time is to train them for growth and structure. Remove or cut back branches that compete with the leader or main trunk. Encourage good placement of lateral branches by removing branches that cross or that grow at sharp vertical angles.

Juvenile/Mature Trees: Your goal during these stages should be to maintain structural integrity and overall health. This is when thinning out the crown to increase air and light penetration, removing dead or diseased branches, and removing suckers/watersprouts should be an done on a regular schedule.

Second: Good Timing

Deciduous (i.e Oaks, Elms, Maples)

Best time: Dormant Period – Between leaf fall and end of winter

Worst Time: Early to late spring

There is little doubt that pruning is ESSENTIAL for the health of a tree. Pruning can increase structural strength, protect health and well being, and GREATLY improve the appearance of a tree and the surrounding landscape. So ask yourself “What purpose it the tree serving?