Trimming a pine tree

Pine Tree Pruning: How And When To Prune Pine Trees

We treasure pine trees because they remain green throughout the year, breaking the winter monotony. They seldom need pruning except to correct damage and control growth. Find out when and how to prune a pine tree in this article.

When to Prune a Pine Tree

Pines are among the easiest trees to maintain because they have a naturally neat shape that seldom needs correction. About the only time you’ll find yourself pruning pine trees is to correct damage from severe weather or vandalism. There’s also a pruning technique you might want to try if you’d like to encourage a compact growth habit.

The best time for pruning pine trees is in spring, but you can prune to correct damage any time of year. Although it’s best to take care of broken and mangled branches right away, you should avoid pruning in late summer or fall whenever possible. Cuts made late in the season won’t have time to heal before winter weather sets in. Wound dressing and paint don’t provide winter protection for pruning cuts.

Give a pine tree a dense, compact growth pattern by pinching back the candles, or new growth tips, in spring. Break them of at about the middle by hand. Cutting them with shears clips into the needles, causing them to turn brown.

Trimming pine trees to shorten the branches is usually a bad idea. Cutting into the woody part of a branch stops the growth of that branch and, over time, it will look stunted. It’s best to remove damaged branches completely.

Pine Tree Pruning How To

When you remove a branch, cut all the way back to the collar, or thickened area near the trunk. If you are cutting a branch that is more than an inch in diameter, don’t make one cut from top to bottom, as this may strip the bark down the trunk when the branch breaks free.

Instead, move about a foot out from the trunk and make a cut from the bottom about halfway through the width of the branch. Move out another inch or two and make a cut all the way through the branch from top to bottom. Cut off the stub flush with the collar.

Make sure your pine tree doesn’t have any branches that rub each other. This situation is rare in pines, but when it happens, one of the branches should be removed to protect the health of the tree. Rubbing causes wounds that provide entry points for insects and disease.

The Myth of Tree Topping

By Linda Chalker-Scott, Associate Professor
Center for Urban Horticulture, University of Washington

“It’s like a haircut – sometimes it’s necessary and a tree can always grow out of a bad one.”

The Myth
In the three years I’ve written this column I’ve never addressed the issue of tree topping. Since plant scientists and arborists unanimously agree that tree topping is an unjustifiable tree management practice, I assumed that the word had trickled down to practitioners and their customers. Yet this summer, like every year before, brought a new crop of buzz-cut trees. It also brought a new crop of excuses (culled from the internet):

  • “I want to trim the top branches off a 75′ tall maple because it’s causing excess shade in my yard. I want the tree to live, but just be smaller.”
  • “I wouldn’t make the sweeping generalization that all tree topping is bad. Locals here whack their weeping willows every few years and those trees seem to relish the opportunity to fill out again.”
  • “It is necessary for the electric company to top trees that grow into the power lines.”
  • “The trees look like hell for a while but seem to get used to the treatment.”

A tree service company states “Although topping a tree is not usually recommended, it is sometimes very necessary. Some of the time it can be a definite safety issue. Other times a tree is topped to get rid of mistletoe.” There’s another web page entitled “Trees that love chainsaws” (!), and in a questionable marketing move, a UK company has trademarked the name “tree-topping” to describe its approach to forest management: after thinning, the remaining trees are topped to “reduce wind throw.”

The Reality
I’ll preface this discussion with a caution that I am only referring to pruning trees not shrubs or hedges), and only to trees that are being maintained in their natural form. There are many types of formal pruning techniques including pollarding, pleaching, espaliering, etc. but they are not included in this discussion.
A reduction cut (also called drop-crotching or thinning to a lateral) is a method of pruning used to reduce the height of a tree. When done properly, branches are cut back to a lateral branch at least one-third the diameter of the limb being removed and large enough to outgrow lateral branches directly below. The lateral branch becomes the source of new terminal growth and subsequently the tree maintains a natural form. This is an appropriate pruning technique for decurrent or rounded trees but should never be used on excurrent or pyramidal trees except to remove multiple leaders.
Unfortunately, many tree cutters (certainly not certified arborists!) claim to thin to laterals when in reality they are topping the tree. Also known as hatracking, height reduction, canopy reduction, heading back or stubbing back, this type of pruning cut removes a terminal shoot back to a point where there is no appropriate lateral branch to take over the terminal role. In response, multiple shoots (or leaders) begin to compete for dominance, resulting in the infamous “hydra” look. What has now been created is a high-maintenance, potentially hazardous tree that must e constantly pruned. Pruning a tree yearly is certainly not environmentally sustainable or cost-effective – but does keep tree cutters in business!
There are plant health issues with tree topping: it’s been demonstrated that sun damage, nutrient stress, insect attack, and decay result from unnecessary and incorrect pruning procedures. There are also aesthetic issues with tree topping: improperly pruned trees are ugly. For years, groups such as the International Society of Arboriculture and the Seattle-based PlantAmnesty have tried to educate professionals and homeowners about the horrors of tree topping, from both a plant health perspective and an aesthetic one; yet tree topping continues. Perhaps what’s needed in today’s tort-happy society is a liability perspective to make tree cutters and those that hire them sit up and take notice.
After topping, may epicormic shoots arise and develop into weakly attached branches. These branches, and the multiple leaders, continue to develop girth and weight and have an increasing potential to fall and cause damage to people and property. From a legal standpoint, the owner of such a tree is responsible for damages if it can be proved that the owner was negligent. If I were to tell my neighbor that her tree constituted a hazard and later this same tree fell and damaged my property, in some states I would be entitled to both actual and punitive damages. There is no doubt within the scientific and arborist communities that incorrect pruning can cause trees to become hazardous. Only one expert witness is needed to demonstrate this and the owner, or the landscape maintenance company, is found responsible.
If every property owner was given this last paragraph of information, I would bet that tree topping would come to a screeching halt. But as long as anyone with a pickup truck and a chainsaw is allowed to call himself a “landscape professional”, property owners by and large will remain blissfully unaware. Property owners need to become educated: they need to insist on certified arborists for tree care and they need to make wise decisions before installing plant material that will outgrow its welcome.
The Bottom Line

  • Tree topping is never a justifiable pruning practice; it increases tree health problems and is aesthetically unappealing
  • A topped tree will require constant maintenance and has an increased potential to become hazardous
  • Hazardous trees are a liability and ultimately the property owner is responsible for any damage hazard trees cause
  • Certified arborists and other legitimate landscape professionals do not practice tree topping
  • There are acceptable pruning techniques designed to keep trees away from power lines and other structures
  • If problems caused by a tree cannot be solved through acceptable management practices, the tree should be removed and replaced with plant material more appropriate for the site
  • Think about the mature size of a tree and where it will grow relative to power lines and other structures before you plant it

* Of Myth and Men ©

Pine Bonsai Pruning

The new Bonsai Book for 2019 by Harry Harrington
Bonsai Books· Bonsai Tools· Bonsai For Sale· Carving Tools· Bonsai Pots· Bonsai T-Shirts

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Pines are one of the classic tree genera used for bonsai throughout the world, however they are also one of the most difficult to understand how to style and prune. Deciduous species (and many conifers, such as Junipers), continuously produce new leaves and shoots throughout the growing season which require continual removal using techniques that can be applied to a tree, whichever variety it is. These techniques however are inappropriate to the growth patterns of pines. Unlike deciduous species, most Pines in Northern temperate areas have only one flush of growth and a different set of pruning techniques need to be applied accordingly.
Pine pruning techniques in reality are very straightforward, however trying to learn them can be very confusing as there is so much contradictory advice offered in Bonsai publications and books. This confusion normally arises from the attempt of Bonsai publications to be too specific about the precise time of the year that certain techniques should be carried out. Unfortunately, different pine species require pruning at slightly different times of the year; different climates will also affect the advancement of Pine growth through the year and this also causes creates confusion when trying to follow advice that has been written for a different climate.
My personal opinion is that it easier to learn to prune pines by observation of the growth pattern of your own tree in your own environment. This ensures that your tree is pruned correctly, at the right time, when your tree is ready; and not simply because it is a certain time of the year.
This article concentrates specifically on techniques for pruning Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii), but these techniques can just as equally be applied to other Pine species if simple observation of varying growth rates between different Pine species is noted. Japanese Black Pines are a vigorous species, particularly in warm climates, other two or three- needle pines with sufficient vigour will respond similarly.

Please note that Pinus mugo/Mugo Pines require a different approach to pruning and repotting, for further information refer to Mugo Pines Indepth

For Pruning and Care Guidelines specific to please refer to Japanese White Pine/P. parviflora Pruning and Care

Late Summer Pine Pruning: Needle Plucking and Shoot Trimming

Pine Growth Characteristics
Pines are extremely apically dominant. This means that their most vigorous area of growth is always towards the top or outer-reaches of the tree. If the tree is left unpruned, all growth will be centred on the apex/top of the tree at the expense of the lower branches and foliage, which, in time will weaken and dieback.
An unpruned or poorly pruned Pine will nearly always display characteristics of heavy top and outer foliage, with little inner growth near the trunk, which is unsuitable for bonsai.

Pines are able to produce buds from anywhere that there are still needles though it is rare for buds to break anywhere other than the tips of shoots. It is very difficult to force Pines to bud-back on the trunk or branches; without careful pruning, branches can be completely bare other than a ball of foliage at their very tips.

Diagram showing vigour areas of a Pine tree

Area 1 is the most vigorous.

Area 2 has medium vigour.

Area 3 is the least vigorous area.

Typically, the other major fault with unpruned pines that needs to be avoided is the natural tendency to produce ‘whorls’ of buds at the end of branches which elongate into multiple sub-branches that look ugly and create problems with inverse taper at the point in the branch (or trunk) that they emanate from.

Due to these growth characteristics, it is necessary to start shaping pines from an early age, pines that have left unpruned whilst developing their trunks can have little or no branch structure that is suitable for use when it comes to styling the tree. Often, in these cases grafting is the only way of encouraging branches low down on the trunk.

Diagram showing vigour areas of a Pine branch

Area 1 is the most vigorous.

Area 2 is of medium vigour.

Area 3 has the least vigour.

The best way to develop a thick trunk on a pine whilst retaining suitable branches low down on the trunk is to cultivate lower and inner shoots as future branches whilst allowing top other branches to extend freely as sacrificial growth that can be removed at a later date.

Hard Pruning/ Removing Branches
Pruning of branches is nearly always carried out when the trees’ growth slows down in late Autumn through to Spring to avoid excessive sap-loss. When pruning in Winter it is always best to leave a small stub rather than cut back close to the trunk. Leaving a stub when pruning pines is advantageous as it leaves open the opportunity in the future of creating jins and it also allows time for the sap-flow to bypass the missing branch, reducing sap-loss through bleeding. Pruning close to the trunk and hollowing out is best carried out whilst still semi-dormant in early Spring as scars will heal quickest with the Spring growth that follows.
It is better to be conservative when hard-pruning and reducing Pines. Severe reduction without allowing for recovery time can be fatal particularly with old or large trees. Reduce large trunks and/or branches gradually over a number of seasons so that the tree is able to adjust.

Wiring Pines
As well as being a useful tool for shaping and positioning trunks and branches, wiring is an effective way of distributing energy and vigour throughout a pine.
When the trunk or branches of a Pine are wired, the flow of sap through these branches is slowed so that not all the trees energy goes directly to its branch tips.
There are many schools of thought as to when the correct time to wire a Pine is. Some say that you should only wire in late Autumn or Winter as whilst the cambium is less active during this time, damage is reduced. Other bonsai enthusiasts recommend wiring during the Summer when any damage to the branch can be repaired immediately by the tree as it is still actively growing. My personal feeling is that it is better to wire during the late Autumn and Winter; pine branches tend to increase in thickness quickly during the late Summer and there is a greater risk of wire damage. Wiring after this time means that the wire can nearly always stay in place until the following Summer by which time the branch should have set in place correctly.

The pruning of pines for foliage and branch formation can be split into four basic areas; bud selection, candle pinching, shoot trimming and needle plucking.

Bud Selection
The development of foliage pads or branch structure on a bonsai dictates that the branch tips should fork and sub-divide into only two smaller sub-branches. As previously stated, Pine buds most often emerge in clusters or whorls at the end of branch tips. The basic rule in Bud Selection is to select two of the buds and remove the rest so that when the buds extend as shoots they form a two-pronged fork.

From Left to Right;

Image 1: Example of a typical bud-cluster
Image 2: A cluster in a dominant area should be reduced to two weak buds
Image 3: A cluster in a weaker area should be reduced to 2 or 3 stronger buds

Buds continually need to be reduced to two as they appear, in Autumn and in Spring. Deciding which 2 buds in a bud cluster should be retained needs some consideration. As previously stated pines are apically dominant, upper and outer areas can (and should) be restrained by careful bud selection and elimination. Apical areas of a pine can produce 5 or more buds to a shoot terminal, by removing the largest and strongest buds and retaining the two smallest and weakest, vigour is re-directed to wards inner and lower areas of the tree. Conversely, weaker lower branches are allowed to retain their largest, most vigorous two or three buds to encourage more vigour to them. If a third bud is retained on a weak branch it can be removed at a later date when its job is done.
To encourage good branch structure and proper formation of foliage pads, whenever possible, buds that appear on the sides of a shoot should be retained rather than those than on top or below.

From left to right;
Image 1: Appearance of shoot tip before bud selection in Spring.
Image 2: After bud selection.
Image 3: After extension of the buds into new sub-branches in Summer. Note the appearance of a further set of buds developing at the new shoot-tips.

Short of removing a tree, the best way to obtain increased light is to limb it up

One of the most important outdoor activities I save for the dormant months is to limb up my trees. I have a lot of them, and left unchecked, they could easily shade out my entire yard. However, with some selective pruning, I am able to enjoy the beauty of the trees, and still allow enough light to filter down to my lawn and other plants. The light filtering through is sufficient to keep my turf lush, and my sun loving plants happy.

This annual or semi-annual exercise is well worth it. I am constantly getting comments from other gardeners at their surprise at how well my lawn and other plants do, with so many trees. Limbing up your trees can be a do-it-yourself project but I don’t advise it. The older I get, the more inclined I am to hire a professional. There are several things to keep in mind if you decide to have your trees limbed up.

Which Trees to Prune

As you survey your landscape, examine all the trees that affect sunlight reaching the ground. In woodland areas, you won’t need to do any pruning. However, in areas where your plants are looking leggy, or you are trying to grow grass, or if certain shrubs just are not flowering like they should, you’ll need to see what you can do to bring more light to the ground. Short of cutting the trees down, limbing up is the next best thing.

I like to remove as many of the lower limbs as possible. The higher I can make the canopy, the better. Be sure to keep in mind the aesthetic consequences of these cuts. You’ll be surprised that once the job is done, you won’t even miss those limbs and your trees might even look better if proper attention is given to uniformity during the pruning process.

One other item to consider in deciding which limbs to remove, is think about where you do want limbs to shade certain plants. For example, I have a bed of azaleas that happily grow under several tall trees. But there are several lower branches of these trees that need to be limbed up. However, I don’t want to remove the branches on the west side of the tree, because they provide shade and protection to my azaleas below from the harsh, late afternoon sun. In this case, judicious pruning is best.

Hire a Certified Arborist

There was a time when I would tackle this limbing-up project myself. Now that I am older and wiser, I realize this job is best left for a professional, “Certified Arborist”. Mature trees are not easily replaced and an improper pruning cut could lead to its demise. Certified Arborist have the training and equipment to get the job done right, while protecting your trees. You can find them listed in the phone book under Tree Care, etc. Look for the “Certified Arborist” logo or designation by their name.

Buyer Beware

Stay clear of economy tree services. Just because someone has a chainsaw and a pick up truck, doesn’t mean they know what they are doing. Rather, their interest is likely in getting the job done as quickly as possible, with little to no regard to the long-term health of your trees. If your hired help pulls out tree climbing spikes to prune your trees, send them on their way. These are very harmful to trees and should only be used for complete tree removal.

A true Certified Arborist will have credentials. Ask to see them. In all cases, you’ll want to inspect that they have the proper insurance. The professionals pay dearly for this, and they expect you to ask.

And, If these were not enough reasons to hire the work out to a professional, consider the consequences of even one fall from a ladder. No matter how much you think you’re saving, it is not worth it!

What you should know about tree topping

The ‘Vanderwolf’ Pine has proven itself a good conifer choice for a hot, dry spot; that won’t get too large and has soft, two-toned needles. This western North American native Pine can tolerate our dry, hot summers and wet winters. Well draining soil, including dry, rocky hillsides, will help it tolerate those conditions even better. We have especially been attracted to it because it doesn’t have the scratchy quality of most conifers, you can get close to it and enjoy the blue and green needles. The ‘Vanderwolf’ has a more open habit than some other sheared looking conifers when young but gets denser with age and can be used as an effective screen, a specimen position, or looks great in groups of three. ‘Vanderwolf’ is more pyramidal than the species- Pinus flexilis. It is difficult to pin down a mature size on the ‘Vanderwolf’ but it is slower growing so it is useful in smaller spaces. It can get 20-25′ tall and 10-15′ wide but it seems to get taller more quickly than it gets wide. Like most pines, it only needs occasional watering once established and this variety is more disease and pest resistant than some other pine species. Also like most pines, it is deer resistant.

check out our availability:

Vanderwolf’s Pyramid Limber Pine

Pinus flexilis

A fast growing, but compact evergreen conifer with beautiful blue-green needles and a upright form. The needles have a strong, but pleasant fragrance.

Power Line Approved: No

Min. street tree planting width: 8 feet

Mature Height: 25 – 30 feet

Mature Spread: 10-15 feet

Tree Shape: Upright pyramidal

Where to Plant:
Great option for a tight yard space, but be sure to plant at least 15 feet away from your house to avoid future conflicts.

Attractive silvery blue needles.

Cones are 3-6 inches long.

Preferred Site Conditions:
Easily transplanted and overall very adaptable. Prefers moist, well-drained soils in full sun.

Potential Problems:
No significant pest or disease issues, but it is susceptible to white pine blister rust. Avoid planting near currants and gooseberries, which are the alternative host for the disease.

Minimum Planting Distances:

  • 15 feet from house or building
  • 3 ½ feet back from the face of the curb
  • 5 feet from underground utility lines
  • 10 feet from power poles
  • 7 ½ feet from driveways (10 feet recommended)
  • 20 feet from street lights and other existing trees
  • 30 feet from street intersections

Additional Resources

  • Missouri Botanical Garden
  • Great Plant Picks
  • Morton Arboretum

Gardening KnowHow

Posted by Daniel Leathers

March 8, 2017

One of the most prolific trees in the world is the pine tree.

There are 126 confirmed species that call the northern hemisphere home, along with one that ventures south of the equator. With that kind of territory, it is important to know how it can be used.

1. Equipment Repair

We coasted over the waters of White Otter Lake in Ontario, Canada. It was a truly beautiful location with loons diving and singing in the evening air. We were headed for a small island in the center of the lake to make camp.

While exploring the area, we came upon a group of fellow adventurers with a leaking canoe. It turns out that one of the rivets in their aluminum hulled boat had popped out during their trip. There were two choices.

The first was to continue to bail water along their trip. The second was to use the repair kit given by Mother Nature: the pine tree.

Poppy Swap

To fix the canoe, we broke a small pine twig that would fit into the hole. We then used a knife to cut a small slit in the trunk of the tree. As the sap oozed, we coated the twig in the pitch and then wedged it into the space of the missing rivet. Problem solved.

So what else is available for this jack-of-all-trees?

2. Fire Building

One of the best ways to get a fire built in wetter weather, or any weather for that matter, is to use pine. While it’s not the cleanest burning wood, it does light well.


Fire can be started using pine cones as in the picture above. However, you can also coat twigs in pitch to serve as a wonderful fire starter or make fuzz sticks to get flame.

If you use pine to create fuzz sticks, be sure to use older sticks or coat in fresh pitch. Don’t forget to gather up pine needles as well in order to get a great blaze.

3. Medicine

Okay, so maybe “medicine” is an overstatement, but it is great for minor first aid purposes.

Pine pitch can be mixed with beeswax to make a throat lozenge. You can also chew it direct from the tree, but you’ll need to make sure it has had a chance to form into bulbs.


You can also use pine tar in much the same way you can Crazy Glue on minor cuts. It will seal off the wound from exposure with will serve as a replacement if you are lacking first said supplies.

4. Weapons

Pine branches tend to be easy to break and often does so with a jagged edge. Sharpening it with a stone or knife can make a lethal point.

UK Preppers Guide

Pine sticks can be turned into three-pronged fishing spears, two-pronged frog gigs or simple single pointed spears. Whatever your choice of weapon, the versatile pine tree will meet the need.

5. Bedding/Shelter

Of course, everyone that is lost in the wilderness needs a good night’s rest. While that is easier said than done, the ever present pine tree can help with that.

Photobucket/Erica Lea

Pine boughs can be used for shelter or bedding. Either way, they can keep the wet off from both bottom and top. Depending on the species of pine tree in your area, you may be able to snuggle up underneath low-hanging branches and strew some boughs around on top of the already dropped needles.

If you do this, be sure to clear an area for fire building. If you aren’t sure why, see the second reason on this list.

True, there are many places in the world that are not home to pine trees in one form or another, but there are numerous places that possess these all-around useful trees. Don’t overlook what Mother Nature provides when trying to stay alive.


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