Pruning Young Trees

Tree pruning

It is important to give young trees proper care and maintenance to ensure a long and healthy life.  There are several important steps in caring for young trees. 

This begins with proper installation, including hydration, fertilization and mulching, and continues in the later years with pruning for proper branch structure.  Proper pruning techniques while trees are young can prevent structural issues down the road ranging from limbs breaking to having to install cables or braces.

Pruning goals vary from species to species as a tree matures, but at the time of installation a lot of the goals are similar.  Removing dead, dying, diseased, split or broken limbs to maintain plant vitality.  Maintaining a central trunk leader or multiple leaders, depending on the species, by removing competing leaders or subordinating them by thinning them back to appropriate lateral branches.  Root suckers can be removed at this time but do not remove the lower lateral branches or thin out the overall crown when the tree is young.  These limbs should be left to provide energy for the root system to become established.

Structural pruning begins 2 to 4 years after installation.  The lower branches on a young tree (the lower 8-12 feet of the trunk) are usually considered temporary limbs.  Some of these lower limbs can be removed at this time.  It is important to keep scaffold branches for future development.  Major scaffold limbs should have a wide angle of attachment and should be properly spaced 12-18 inches apart (or 6-8 inches for younger trees.) Pruning to remove root suckers, dead, diseased, crossing and conflicting limbs will also be appropriate at this time.  Check the base of the tree to make sure it is free of girdling roots and/or guy wires still remaining from planting.

At 5 to 7 years after planting, the remaining temporary lower limbs can be removed for clearance to lawns, driveways or sidewalks as necessary.  Continue to maintain properly spaced branching for scaffold limbs, and thin out crossing and rubbing limbs.  Trim back limbs that extend beyond the natural outline of the canopy.  Subordinate or remove co-dominant leaders and remove root suckers.

After 8 to 10 years, thin the canopy for light and air penetration and remove dead, dying, diseased, competing, crossing and conflicting limbs.  Limbs that extend beyond the natural outline can be cutback and low drooping limbs can be removed.  The height of the lowest limbs depends on owner preference, species, planting sight and purpose.

Kevin Riegner works in the Raleigh/Durham office of Bartlett Tree Experts.  You may contact him at 919-687-0776 or

Copy link