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How to trim trees: okay, just so we’re clear on what I mean by “tree trimming” this close to the holidays, I’m actually talking about this hot mess:

how to trim trees

An alternative title for this post could easily be called “How to cut down significant portions of tree and not kill yourself (or the tree) in the process.”

As I mentioned in the post about the wacky squirrel shenanigans I’ve had to deal with lately, I noticed that one of my trees in the front yard had branches that were a little too close to the house for comfort. And even though I’ve done the whole tree maintenance thing a few times over the last several years while owning this house (and once hired pros to take on the bigger stuff), I realized that I’ve also never really covered much in terms of how the DIY process typically goes when trying to get rid of excess tree limbs. So, here are a few tips that you might find useful whenever you think about tackling trees yourself.

First: Why bother?

Other than things like a tree’s limbs getting too close to your home (or over the roof), there are a number of other reasons to prune a tree. For one, dead or dying limbs are a hazard; there’s a reason that dangling branches are called “widowmakers”! They may look like a stick from way down on the ground, but they are very (as in loss-of-consciousness-or-even-death) heavy. A direct connection with one of these could cause your window to break, or, you know… a broken skull.

Keeping dead limbs away from healthy growth also keeps bugs, rot, and disease from infecting the rest of the tree or other plants… which could potentially turn a simple dead limb into a large, dead tree that could fall onto the house in very little time. Thinning a dense canopy of branches also allows sunlight to hit the ground and increases air flow, which also results in less disease. Not to mention, a freshly trimmed tree often makes whole yard just look more aesthetically pleasing and less like a haunted house (hint hint, neighbor down the street).

sunny day exterior new paint

For the most part, this is very much DIY-able.

I get that climbing a ladder, working with a chainsaw-on-a-pole thing above your head, and relative uneasiness about combining these two things with heights isn’t always easy to keep that lump in your throat from making you chicken out. I even have a little fear of heights myself. But as long as you have someone reliable holding the ladder below you, you use the proper gear (such as safety goggles and rope), and you stay the hell out of the way from a falling branch (or potential one, as the case may be), there’s no reason you can’t take care of plenty of tree maintenance on your own. For larger stuff, such as taking out pine trees or limbing ones that go way over your head, it’s better to call a pro, but the typical scenario I find myself in is just lopping off a few that are closer to the ground. And saws on extension poles actually do go a long way.

How to Avoid Tree Death (Over-pruning)

One of the best tips I received from one of the tree pros is the answer to the question, “How much should you trim from a tree at any given time?” The answer: no more than 15-20%. In my opinion, ten percent is a good rule of thumb for DIY (since it’s easy to get carried away). Then give the tree a few years to recover from its wounds. Over-pruning hurts the trees ability to create food for itself (all of those leaves, if you recall from your elementary science classes, help with photosynthesis) and a healthy tree keeps opportunistic pests at bay.

One thing I’ve recently learned as well is that it’s important to cut the right spot on the branch you’re trimming; cut too close to the trunk, and you create an opportunity for bark issues to infest the trunk; cut too far down the limb, and you create a dead branch that the tree won’t “heal” properly and give you a widowmaker situation to look forward to in the future. (Of course, in awkward situations where I’m really anxious to get down off the ladder, what’s ideal is not always my #1 concern; if the branch is on the ground, I might consider trimming it back further to get it closer to the trunk, or I might leave it and call it a day. It usally depends on whether or not I’m hungry and my arms are tired from holding a heavy pole saw.)

The Right Tools*

Ladder – Use an A-frame ladder for lower limbs and an extension ladder further up the tree (or one that can be both, like the one linked to). To help stabilize the ladder, definitely use a buddy at the bottom to hold the ladder while you climb. Your buddy can also hand you things like pruners, rope, and pole saws.

Rope – I don’t really mess around when it comes to heights (unlike Charlie). So when I know I’m going to be on a ladder up against a tree, it helps me feel much more comfortable to tie the upper area of the ladder to the tree. It rocks less and reduces slippage.

Pruner/Lopper – You can actually accomplish quite a lot with two-handed pruning shears. They actually make me feel pretty badass at the limited amount of force it takes compared to the pile of clipped branches I can create in just a few minutes.

Telescoping Pole Saw – If you’re going to do this often enough, buy an electric one instead.

Electric Pole Saw – After, oh, the first time I used the manual pole saw, I was quickly converted to the electric version. It’s a lot heavier when you’re holding it in the air like this, but being able to just move the saw in place and let it do the majority of the work is especially nice on thicker limbs.

how to trim trees

Safety Tips

I already mentioned the rope part above, but there a few other important things to remember. A lot of these tips are basically the same rule: get the hell out of the way. But you’d be surprised how many times you have to remind yourself of this, so it bears repeating for every scenario this occurs.

Wear safety glasses. Cutting through wood with a chainsaw on a pole will have splinters flying everywhere. Best not to get one in your eye.

Loop the electrical cord. One of the most frustrating things when using something like a saw is the way the electrical cord slips out of place. A good way to keep this from happening is to first pull the cord through the hole in the handle, around the back of the handle and then plug it in.

Don’t ever position the ladder (or yourself) where the branch is likely to fall. You want to have access to the branch, but not be directly under it (again, falling limbs crash down a lot harder than you think they will). Branches usually begin to fall when you’re about halfway through, so they will swing down against the trunk. Gravity alone may be enough to bring them the rest of the way, so you won’t have time to move. Plan accordingly.

how to trim trees

Move the ladder. I get it; the branch just above you is super tempting. But don’t do it. Re-position the ladder out of the way, then climb back up and cut.

Position yourself comfortably first, then grab the saw. This is why it’s helpful to have someone below the ladder to both help stabilize it and then hand you the saw. The electrical version is what I prefer, but it’s much heavier, so you get tired faster from holding it in the air (and it’s top-heavy, which makes things even more cumbersome). You can hand it right back down when you’re done, too!

If the pole saw gets stuck in the branch, you might have to back away for a while. It felt kind of dumb to just leave the saw dangling in the air and in the branch, but any amount of wiggling and running it only pinned it further into the tree (and also could have burned out the motor if I kept going). By the time the conversation about what to do next ended, gravity pulled on the branch enough to free the pole saw and it all came crashing down. If this ever happens to you, be careful not to walk under the tree until the branch is down. Even if you try to get a rope around it and pull it down, never do it from under the tree!

Cleanup

I learned this from observing my professional landscaping neighbor: when you’re taking the limbs out to a truck, clip everything down into manageable pieces. But the magic actually happens in the bed of the truck. Branches won’t lay down on their own usually, but you can often cram a lot more into the bed of the truck by climbing on top (using your body weight to collapse branches) and using your pruning shears to continue clipping at branches that refuse to lay flat. Clip, stomp, clip, stomp, clip, stomp. Even when thinking it’s full, doing this has turned many “this is going to be two trips for sure” into one.

*affiliate links – if you buy these online from these links, it sends me a few pennies for the referral

diy tree trimming pruning basics

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15 Comments

  1. Excellent tips. I would only add that the person holding the ladder should be someone you listen too. I got to see first hand what happens when you don’t. My neighbors were outside and the wife was yelling his name but he was mad at her and didn’t listen. Apparently she was trying to tell him that the ladder was against the tree limb he was sawing off. Lol and then he did it again. Highly entertaining weekend.

    1. Ha! Well that’s both great advice AND an entertaining story. I suppose if you’re unwilling to listen to a person who is trying to keep you safe, you sort of deserve to fall off… definitely the second time (though based on him being that oblivious, maybe he’d already fallen on his head before?)!

  2. You know, I consider myself a pretty “DIY type of guy” but I’d never even considered pruning my trees myself! I might have to give this a go… next year.

  3. Good job for tackling this yourself. My father-in-law is the next thing to a professional lumber jack, so we usually call on him for any tree work. His most recent visit to our place saw 3 chainsaws end up stuck in a fallen log. The log was suspended awkwardly and gravity was not helping us in this case. The saws just kept getting pinched. Fortunately, we had one more saw and were able to free everyone.

  4. Thanks for the post. I think you have given me courage to try to do some tree trimming on my own. Up here in the north, we have to prepare our trees for winter and heavy snow. I usually pay someone to do it. You definitely covered the topic from A-Z :)

  5. I really appreciate the explanation of why it’s important to trim and prune trees. I always knew it was good for the tree, but didn’t know why. Airflow wasn’t even a fleeting thought before! I’ll have to be better about pruning more regularly now that I understand the importance.

  6. I can agree that it’s important to get rid of the dead limbs. We get some bad vermin that I think thrive off of them. It’s nice because dead branches are really easy to get rid of. I think it’s kind of fun to just go pull limbs down. Great info on here. Thanks!

  7. My wife and I have a few trees in our yard that need some serious pruning. These tips have been very helpful and we plan on trying them with our smaller trees. As for our bigger ones, I’m realizing that there is a lot more that goes into it than just this. I think it will be better to hire a professional service to come and take take care of that part of it all.

  8. My husband and I just moved into a home that has quite a few trees in the backyard. The previous owners did a good job of keeping them trimmed and we really want them to stay healthy. We will have to keep this information in mind and see if we can call someone in to do the job for us, thanks for sharing!

  9. My husband and I recently moved into a new home that has a lot of trees. I really liked your suggestion of keeping dead limbs away from the healthy growth to avoid bugs, rot, and disease from infecting the rest of the tree or other plants. I will definitely be using this tip to keep my yard looking nice!

    1. We currently use a trailer as well to haul off branches, but it creates quite a bit more work and then we have to pay the dump fees when we get rid of it. We’re considering investing in a wood chipper to save us time, money on fees, and be able to give the wood chips to places that will recycle them or use them for projects.

  10. It really helps that you listed all of the pruning equipment that I would need to prune my own trees. I thought that I only needed a pair of tree trimmers to get the job done. 

  11. Wow, what timely post for my husband and I, because we plan to trim our neighbor tree limbs that’s now hanging over the roof of our house. I hate when things like this happens. Trees touching our roof, always a pain in our … however, we must cut them back, because birds pooping on our very pricey patio furniture. Squirrel ? jumping on our roof. Neither are a good thing. Thanks for all your fabulous tips, which we will be using them.
    By the way, I just found and joined your site. Loving what I am seeing

    1. Thanks so much, Ivory! I’m glad you found my post helpful. I really want to add more DIY 101 to the site for this exact reason, so that more folks can find answers to questions they may have been too afraid to ask!

  12. Thanks for the information! I’m never sure if I’m pruning my trees correctly, so this information will help me know what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong. I really appreciate this tree pruning advice.