Category Archives: Pruning

The Right Way to Prune Trees

Pruning small trees is not difficult, but it does require care and knowledge. There are many reasons to prune trees, including: to trim away dead or dying branches, to provide healthier air circulation among the branches, to keep them clear of obstacles or buildings and to highlight their natural beauty. 

correct pruning cut

Although most trees can be pruned at any time when it’s necessary, late winter is the time I recommend, before the tree needs to use its energy for growing. Also, for deciduous trees, you get a better look at the tree structure without leaves. Before you pick up the pruning saw, take a good look at the structure of the branches. If you see branches rubbing together or crossing, one should be pruned away. Are there dead branches that need to be removed? Are there signs of disease?

The timing of pruning sometimes depends on the purpose of your tree. For example, if you intend to harvest fruit from your apple or pear tree, pruning after the fruit is harvested is recommended. If the fruit tree is ornamental, pruning in winter or after flowering is fine.

The first rule of pruning trees is safety. If you need to climb a ladder, make sure that it is firmly situated. For small trees, a pruning saw and loppers should meet your needs. Don’t use a chainsaw, unless you have safety training. The same goes for climbing. Any reputable tree care company (such as Almstead), requires many hours of training and certification before we let our crews perform this kind of work.

 When pruning tree limbs close to the trunk (as opposed to outer branches that are pruned back to a fork or a lateral bud), it’s important to understand the role of the branch collar. The branch collar is the junction where the branch meets the trunk; it is a swollen ring around the bottom of the branch that looks more like the tree trunk than the branch. Never prune the branch flush with the trunk: you should leave the branch collar intact. Ideally the pruning cut is made just beyond the branch collar. If you’re in doubt, leaving extra branch is better than damaging the collar. 

The reason for this careful treatment of the branch collar is to help the trees heal themselves. Trees have the ability to compartmentalize damage. The branch collar will seal off the wound made by pruning; if the cut was made correctly, in a couple of years, the wound will be healed. It used to be common to paint something over these wounds to seal them; now we realize that the tree will do the job better if left alone. 

The Biggest Mistake You Can Make Pruning Shrubs

For most of us, pruning shrubs is a do-it-yourself project. Unfortunately, the results are not always satisfactory. This is especially true in the long-term: often a shrub looks good right after pruning but becomes progressively less attractive in the following seasons. What went wrong?

One key mistake is usually responsible: not knowing your plant. 

You don’t need to be a botanist or an arborist to understand the basic requirements of your shrubs. Observation, coupled with a little research, will provide you with a pruning plan that will enhance the appearance of every shrub in your landscape, while promoting their long-term health.


One of the first things to learn is when to prune. Late winter is the ideal time to prune most shrubs—but there are exceptions such as lilacs and azaleas. The rule of thumb is to prune in winter unless the shrub flowers in June or earlier; these should be pruned after flowering. You only need to do the research on your plants once, then you’ll have a pruning calendar for the future. For most landscapes, two or three pruning times a year will meet the needs of every plant.

Another important thing to know is what your shrub or tree should look like. Unless you are an extremely skilled and committed pruner, you will want to enhance the natural shape of the shrub rather than coerce it into an artificial form. Even in something as common as a hedge, maintaining a formal shape is much more labor- and knowledge-intensive than maintaining an informal one that allows for the natural forms of the shrubs.

Plants such as roses, forsythia and viburnum, which are so common in our gardens, are often pruned incorrectly. A few seasons of shaping forsythia into a ball by shearing off the ends will leave you with a shrub that has few flowers and many brown, woody stems. Pruning canes from the base (the correct method) will lead to a beautiful drift of yellow flowers.

In fact, there are really no plants that can be simply sheared into the shapes we want. For hedge plants such as boxwood, arborvitae and yew, which are often sheared, pruning is necessary as well. Is the hedge or ornamental beginning to show woody dark places instead of lush greenery? This will only get worse, unless you let some light inside the hedge and prune to promote new growth. (The need for sun is also why the top of the hedge should be narrower than the base.) Ideally, after shaping the plant each year, you will judiciously prune some branches, promoting new inside growth. If this hasn’t been done in several years, it may be time for a serious rejuvenation pruning.

Pruning evergreens, like pine and spruce, requires hand pruners rather than shears. These trees and shrubs should not be pruned beyond the current year’s growth. If you wish to maintain their size or shape them, careful annual pruning by trimming the new candles is a must.

Woody deciduous ornamentals, such as lilac and Japanese maple, require gentle pruning to refine their shape. Some, such as lilacs, will need to be “de-cluttered” of the nest of crossing branches that can limit airflow and encourage diseases. Others, like Japanese maple, will need an occasional snip to correct any branches that depart from the desired shape. For an ornamental such as laceleaf Japanese maple, begin by envisioning what the tree should ultimately look like: a series of fans, gently overlapping but maintaining separate layers. Carefully trim out any limbs that touch the ground or fall on the layer below. If you’re not sure, wait until next year and see how it looks then—you get another chance.

Although learning to prune properly can seem daunting, it is also rewarding. Mistakes are rarely fatal to your shrubs. Observe your plants and see how they respond to your pruning. Every year, you will improve—and so will your landscape. And of course, if this isn’t a job you want to do yourself, an arborist can help you keep your landscape in top shape.

Pruning Cane Plants

Now is the perfect time to get out your pruning shears and attack your rose bushes! Although it seems like winter still stretches out interminably before us, spring is actually approaching. Now, just as plants begin to break their dormancy and their buds are beginning to swell, is the time to prune most cane plants. Regular pruning promotes healthy growth and lush flowering in cane plants.


Many of our flowering shrubs can be categorized as “cane plants.” These plants continue to send up new shoots from their bases, where they typically have formed a clump. Roses and forsythia are our most common examples; the group also includes bamboo, kerria, weigela and deutzia among others.

rose-pruning-cutBefore you reach for your pruning shears, there is an important first step: take a good look at your shrub. What do you see? Are there dead canes? Even in winter, dead canes will appear different from live ones: they will look shriveled and blackened.  These will be the first things to prune away.  Now take a longer look and envision how you would like your plant to ultimately look.  Forsythia, like many cane plants, has a gently weeping shape. Pruning should enhance the beauty of this shape. Although clipping forsythia into a hedge is fairly common, it does not highlight the beauty of the plant. I recommend putting down the hedge clippers in favor of pruning shears.

In general, we prune cane plants by removing the canes close to the ground. When we prune, we are actually helping the plant by “de-cluttering” it.  Old canes often give the shrub a stiff structure, rather than a graceful form. Removing canes that are touching or crossing will open up the plant visually and allow for air flow as well, helping to prevent disease. We are also helping to keep the plant at the size we want – rather than the 10 or 15 ft. in height it might want to achieve on its own!

The actual process of pruning isn’t difficult. Using CLEAN pruning shears or loppers, get down close to the ground and remove the dead canes, along with any puny or diseased ones. Then remove the canes you’ve identified that are cluttering the plant.  If you have a bush that hasn’t been regularly pruned, you may wind up removing a major portion of the plant.  If you prune annually, removing about 1/8 to ¼ of the plant is typical.

If you are pruning an older plant, especially one that hasn’t been recently pruned, you may need to use a small pruning saw to remove some of the old wood in the center of the plant. This can be a challenge (especially on thorny rose bushes), but it will improve the appearance and health of your plants. These old, hardened canes often clutter up the center of the shrub, and flower very little.

Most canes don’t flower in the first year (roses are the exception here). Forsythia, for example, will not flower on new wood; they begin flowering the second year, then they flower profusely for a few years and start to slack off. This is true for some climbing roses as well. Removing older canes regularly and encouraging younger canes to grow will maximize the flower production on your bush. Also prune away the ends that are touching the ground: on a vigorous bush like forsythia, they’ll root, causing an unruly clump.

The guidelines above work for roses as well. For hybrid tea roses (the most common roses in our gardens), we also prune back the individual canes.  Leave only strong branches on roses, and prune so that they are growing outward; cut at a 45° angle just above a bud facing outward.  Roses are prone to fungal diseases and adequate air flow will help keep them healthy.

You should also prune away any suckers on your rose bushes. Suckers are shoots coming out from the roots; they are common in grafted plants such as older roses.  Uncover the sucker with a trowel and nip it away where it meets the roots.

One of the great things about cane plants is their vigor: they’re hard to kill. If you’re overenthusiastic in your pruning, you may lose a season of bloom, but they’ll likely come back stronger and better next year.

Why You Should Prune Your Trees in Winter

When spring comes, we think of all the things we should do in the garden, such as pruning. But winter can be a better time to prune for several reasons.

Pruning in winter is like having an x-ray. In winter, deciduous trees have cast off their coverings, giving us a much better view of their structure. We get a clear picture of the entire tree, allowing us to identify weak branch connections, cracks in limbs, unsafely crossing limbs and dead wood. Winter is the ideal time to uncover and address the structural flaws that can eventually lead to branch or tree failures.

The structure of this tree is revealed by winter.
The structure of this tree is revealed in winter.

Winter storms are dangerous pruners. High winds and wet snow put tremendous strain on branches. Broken branches should be professionally pruned so that the cut can be in the right place to promote the natural healing process that trees employ. We recommend that you identify and remove dead or cracked branches before winter does its own pruning, which can be dangerous for property, people, and the tree.

Your yard won’t mind. Pruning and removing trees is easier when the ground is frozen. A tree care professional can typically move heavy equipment closer to the trees they are working on without harming lawns or herbacious perennials and annuals. Removing dead trees is often simpler when surrounding trees are bare. Plus, your family will experience less inconvenience when they’re usually indoors anyway.

Make spring more beautiful. Many of the flowering trees and shrubs we love, like apples, cherries, and magnolias, have already formed their buds for spring flowers by the end of fall of the previous year. By selectively pruning in winter, we can improve the saturation of flowers and fruit they have in the growing season. Winter is a busy pruning season for orchards! Proper pruning techniques are important, whether on a shrub or tree. If you do your own shrub pruning, make sure you pick the right season for each shrub and use the proper techniques. For example, pruning early flowering shrubs now (like azaleas) will lead to fewer blossoms.

Before you prune your own trees, make sure you understand proper pruning techniques. Correct pruning, whether to remove dead wood or to improve a tree’s structure, is much more than just picking a spot and sawing away: the placement and execution of a proper cut actually helps the tree with its healing process.

When trees require pruning of high branches or a power saw is needed, it’s time to call a professional. A professional tree care company, like Almstead, has the right tools, equipment and safety training to do the job.

Preserving Old Trees During Construction – Part 1

Almstead was brought in to consult on preserving Sugar Maple trees — that are approximately 75 years old — during the construction of a new home in Riverside, CT. These beautiful old trees will definitely add to the value and aesthetic of the property once the construction is complete. In the meantime, it’s our job to make sure that they stay healthy and safe. In general, Maple trees have a high level of adaptability to environmental change.

We found major soil disturbance within the drip line of the tree caused by the blasting of ledge rock and the excavation for construction and the installation of utilities.

Over the course of the next year, Almstead will monitor the site and ensure that the trees are healthy, and looking their best, after the construction is over. In addition to consultation, our services will include root and crown pruning, fertilizations, soil amendments and air spading.

We will post photos and updates on this project here in the coming months.


(Top ) Blasting of ledge rock was done in preparation for construction. You can see the fault line and exposed roots that have resulted from the rock blasting. 

(Bottom) Before and after root pruning — Almstead will be pruning the roots as well as the crown. We will also be treating the tree with cambistat growth regulators and custom fertilizations during and after construction to help preserve these trees throughout the process.

Our Hornbeams Grace “9/11 Memorial” at Horace Mann School


In September 2002, Almstead planted two European Columnar Hornbeam trees at Horace Mann School as part of a 9/11 Memorial. These trees were specially chosen for their columnar form — and we have pruned them periodically to keep them looking natural but also mimic the shape of the Twin Towers — to remind visitors of their significance at the Memorial.

Last week, twelve years later, an entirely new student body gathered to remember 9/11. The Hornbeam trees, which were about 7 feet tall when they were planted on 2002, are now over 30 feet tall. Hornbeams can live for more than a century and these trees will be there to help future generations of Horace Mann students learn and remember.

Read an article about the 2014 event on the Horace Mann website here.

— Ken Almstead, CEO

Recycling Cypress

One of my favorite places to work – and to visit —  is Wave Hill, the public garden and cultural center in the Bronx. This beautifully designed park is a garden for all seasons. Visiting there should be on every New Yorker’s to-do list.

Work begins taking down these 35-40 ft.cypress trees.
Work begins taking down these 35-40 ft.cypress trees.

We were recently asked to replace several cypress trees in one of their gardens. The trees had grown too large for their location and needed to be removed. 4 foot tall replacement trees had been nurtured on-site, grown from cuttings of the mature cypresses to be removed.  The smaller trees will look more proportionate to the rest of the garden and not obscure the view of the Palisades.

This job was different from most of our tree removal because we were asked to take down the trees in as large sections as possible.  Unlike in forestry, where trees are often cut for lumber, in urban forestry we typically take down trees in 2-4 ft. sections: we don’t often have the room to drop an entire tree; also the smaller, cut sections are easier to manage through tight spaces and into the chipper. However, since cypress is an unusually valuable tree, the trunks would be taken to the woodworking shop facilities at Wave Hill where they will eventually be used in one of their upcoming projects.

I’d like to digress for a moment on the history of cypress trees. Cypresses have been admired and ultilized for thousands of years. They are an old-world Mediterranean tree, whose tall, narrow beauty was used to grace important public and religious sites. The wood was also valued for its lightness, strength and lack of sap. Ancient Egyptians used cypress to make coffins for their mummies; Plato inscribed his code of laws on cypress because he thought it would last longer than brass.

Today, cypress remains a valued wood for its resistance to rot, lack of warping and the beauty of its grain and hue. America has many native cypresses.  The ones at Wave Hill are Lawson Falsecypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana).  Though called a “false” cypress, the genus is generally considered part of the cypress family.

Here are some photos from the job:

removing cypress
We began by limbing up the tree by removing small branching


anchoring cypress
Then we rigged the bare trunks by anchoring them with a line to another tree.


roping cypress
We felled the last trunk by steadying it with ropes from the ground, allowing a slow, controlled progression to the ground.


cypress cleanup
Wave Hill wound up with some beautiful cypress logs, up to 20 ft. in length.

Ken Almstead, CEO and Arborist

Transplanting 6 Tons of City Trees

Weekends are quieter than weekdays in Manhattan’s financial district so that’s the best time for moving a tree through the crowded city streets. Trane Construction Company at 55 Water St. needed to make some renovations to their site which would displace two large Callery Pear trees. A new location was chosen at a public school on the island side of the Manhattan Bridge.

pruning trees
Early Saturday morning: pruning to reduce the canopy size and improve the overall branch structure.

Work began on Friday night when a crew came in to break up and remove the sidewalk cement surrounding the trees. The City of New York would allow for the closure of the sidewalk only until 7 p.m. on Saturday, so the pressure was on!

Our Almstead crew began early the next morning, painstakingly digging a trench around the base of the tree, excavating 5 feet down to get as much of the root structure as we could. We knew what the size of the new sidewalk planting pit would be, and pruned the roots to form a root ball as large as possible. City trees rarely have the luxury of developing an extensive root system; they struggle to survive under adverse conditions. Our job was to give these trees the best start possible in their new location.

We also pruned the trees so the canopies would be smaller – making less work for the smaller root structure. We wrapped the root balls in burlap and tied them to keep them intact. We also gently tied the canopy together to prevent damage on the journey.

Digging out a tree. Because of the existing  curb 2’ from the trunk, we elongated the root ball to retain as much root mass as possible.
Digging out a tree. Because of the existing curb 2’ from the trunk, we elongated the root ball to retain as much root mass as possible.

Then we brought in heavy construction equipment to lift the 6,000 lb.trees from their holes and carry them to their new home. We took them on a 25-block journey through the streets of Manhattan – past the South Street Seaport, under the FDR Drive – accompanied by an NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation escort.

We placed them in their new holes and filled in the remaining space with high end compost, specialized soil, organic biostimulants and additives to increase water retention in the soil and promote healing and rooting. Finally we covered them with a 4” layer of hardwood mulch to further protect them from temperature fluctuations and inhibit moisture evaporation from the soil.

We’ll be stopping by every 2 to 3 days to make sure the trees are well watered and not showing any ill effects from their journey. We have designed an ongoing Plant Health Care program for the next two years to give these pear trees the best start possible in their new home. We hope to see them thrive in front of the school.

–       Chris Busak, Arborist

Hate to Say We Told You So …

In our last blog post (Prune in June) one of our arborists discussed the incredible amount of growth we’ve seen this year on many trees. His warning about the importance of lightening the load on some of these trees was right on target — as this unfortunate beech tree found out.

This Beech tree lost half of its canopy when a major branch split from the weight of unusual spring growth.
This Beech tree lost half of its canopy when a major branch
split from the weight of unusual spring growth.

According to the owners, the tree had been declining somewhat over time. This spring, for the first time in years, its foliage was lush and magnificent. Then – CRACK. The owners were lucky that it missed their house.

In all honesty, pruning alone wouldn’t have prevented this damage — the tree  needed to be cabled and braced because of the size and weight of the “branch”  (really a second trunk, which is never a good idea for a big tree). For a typical tree however, pruning some of the branches could remove enough weight to prevent this kind of damage.

What is the future of this tree? Not good. While it might survive the loss of the branch (with a little help from Almstead), aesthetically it’s lost half of its canopy. I wouldn’t be surprised if, within a few years, the owners opt for removal.

– Jeff Delaune, Almstead arborist, New Rochelle

Prune in June


The incredible spring growing season we’ve had here in the New York area has produced a thick, heavy canopy for our trees and shrubs. In many cases, this is too much of a good thing. We’ve been seeing a lot of trees that have too much leafy weight to be safely supported by the branches, making them vulnerable to snapping off, and putting stress on the tree’s health. We’re also still finding branches damaged by last fall’s storms either hung up in other branches or ready to break off.

And there are several other good reasons to “Prune in June.” Selective pruning helps to maintain your plantings by stimulating healthy new growth, enhancing the form and beauty of your trees or shrubs. Right after the spring growth is also the right time to prune to create a thicker privacy screen. And of course, selectively pruning the tree canopy will allow more light to reach your lawn, shrubs and perennials.

 –   Alan McCullough,  Almstead arborist and Branch Manager, New Jersey

Getting to the Root of Things

Almstead was asked to do some work at St. John’s University recently.  They had done some construction about 7 years ago in a lovely quadrangle with 8 mature pin oak trees.  They worked around the trees, then resodded the  lawn. The grass looked fine, but the pin oaks, which had remained during construction, weren’t thriving.

St. John's University, Queens, NY
St. John’s University, Queens, NY

This is something we see commonly:  after construction, everything  LOOKS great, but the soil has been compacted around the tree roots by feet and machinery (which can happen even without construction on a busy campus). Eventually, the trees start to decline as their feeder roots struggle to grow and find nutrition in the dense soil. Above, you can see the tree closest to the building is starting to look stressed, lacking a full canopy.

An Almstead crew cleaning up after pruning
An Almstead crew cleaning up after pruning

We had several tree care jobs to perform here, so we brought in several different crews: one group did tree trimming, another did air spading, and another took care of the hydraulic soil injection.  That way, we could lessen the disruption to the campus.

Our tree trimming crew worked on identifying and pruning diseased and dead branches  – important for the health of the tree, but also for the safety of people walking on campus.

We also removed the sod and performed air spading around the roots. The aid spade loosens the soil and blows it away from the roots using compressed air – without damaging the roots. There’s no risk of nicking the roots – or a utility line – as could happen with a traditional spade.  We can check for any other problems (insect or disease) while the roots are exposed. Then we just fill the soil back in, sometimes adding some extra amendments to keep the tree healthy.  In fact, last year, the University needed to run a water line through the root zone of this group of trees. We worked with the contractor and uncovered the roots with the air spade. We made clean cuts in the roots where necessary as he ran the line through.

An Almstead Plant Healthcare Technician performs  hydraulic soil injection
An Almstead Plant Healthcare Technician performs hydraulic soil injection

This year, we’re performing hydraulic soil injection of custom blended fertilizer and soil additives for these oaks, to help them stay strong. (There’s Leo in the picture on the left, giving a tree its vitamins).

With some care and extra attention, these oaks should be there for several generations of future students.

– Ken Almstead, Almstead arborist and CEO

What Topped Trees Look Like

Topping is an unfortunately common pruning practice that ignores a basic tenet of arboriculture: pruning back to a natural branch juncture. Failing to do so leads to the onset of watersprouts – many small branches that emerge from dormant buds in the area of the cut.When a branch breaks in a storm, this new growth helps a tree to restore its canopy. When unnatural wounds that resemble branch breakage appear throughout the canopy, watersprouting happens at each of these cuts, and the tree is drained of energy from over-producing the sprouts. That makes the tree weaker and more susceptible to insect and disease problems. What’s more, the sprouts create structural problems down the road. It is not uncommon for a topped tree to decline to the point of being unsalvageable.

I’ve taken some photos of topped ornamentals I’ve seen around town in Larchmont and Mamaroneck for you to see below.

–Jeff Delaune, Almstead Arborist in Lower Westchester County, NY.

Topping to create a uniform, rounded shape is common on ornamental trees like Pears and Crabapples, but ultimately this leads to a messy, structurally unsound canopy.
Topping to create a uniform, rounded shape is common on ornamental trees like Pears and Crabapples, but ultimately this leads to a messy, structurally unsound canopy.
Close-up of fresh topping cuts on a Crabapple
Close-up of fresh topping cuts on a Crabapple
Close-up of an Elm that was topped a couple of years ago. Notice the thick water sprout growth that emerged after the improper cuts were made.
Close-up of an Elm that was topped a couple of years ago. Notice the thick water sprout growth that emerged after the improper cuts were made.
Here is a very clear example of water sprouts emerging from the sites of improper topping cuts. Good reduction cuts will scale back the size of a tree while taking structure and growth patterns into account.
Image: Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service,

Pruning the Cherry Trees at Men in Black Headquarters

Here’s something a little out of the ordinary for us in the tree business…

The Set Decorators for the upcoming movie Men in Black 3 enlisted Almstead to prune three Cherry trees framing the entrance to the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in Battery Park (better know to fans as Men in Black Headquarters).

The request was for us to prune the trees back significantly to gain more visibility of the building while still maintaining a natural shape and not making fresh cuts large enough that they would be obvious on screen. While this job required a bit more meticulousness than usual, it’s not unfamiliar territory for us. We call this type of work a “natural crown reduction” in arboriculture. In this case, the crew did a great job of removing about 25% of each tree’s canopy while still maintaining their natural growth habits and avoiding that “just pruned” look.

A thank you from the Men in Black Set Department
A thank you from the Men in Black Set Department
Almstead crew pruning Cherries at the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in Battery Park
Almstead crew pruning Cherries at the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in Battery Park

In addition to the aesthetic benefits, natural crown reduction is also much better for trees in the long run compared to less subtle methods like topping (simply cutting back the edges of the crown to where you want them the same way you might shear a hedge). Making cuts at natural junctures in the tree and thinking about which branches are most important to its underlying structure keep future growth headed in the right direction, prevent stress reactions like water-sprouting, and minimize the chances of decay as a result of the pruning wounds. It’s definitely the best way to reduce the size of a tree, even if your landscape isn’t about to be Hollywood’s next big star.

— Chris Busak, Arborist in NYC & Lower Westchester