When and how to prune deciduous trees?

Pruning deciduous trees is essential because it not only improves the structure and overall look of the tree but also prevents diseased branches from spreading the problem to healthy ones. On the other hand, when you cut branches of trees, you can reduce the woody plant’s vitality and make it prone to disease, especially if you remove major big branches. That's why it is of great importance to know what time of the year you should trim your trees. 

So if you are asking yourself "When should I prune my trees?" or not sure how to prune deciduous trees, then keep on reading! In this article, we'll cover the best pruning techniques for common deciduous trees and the right season to do so. 

When to prune deciduous trees?

Your trees' health depends a lot on what time of the year you prune them. For instance, most of the deciduous trees are pruned in the cold season, while others, like walnut and birch, will bleed sap if pruned then. Some trees are prone to silver leaf disease if pruned at the wrong time. Many people don't know when trees should be pruned and don't prune them at all. That is not the solution, as pruning is necessary to remove weak growth, vigorous growth and diseased branches.  

That's why we've prepared this article, to get you familiarized with the most common deciduous trees in the UK, how and at what time of the year they should be pruned.

Deciduous trees that need late Spring to Summer pruning

Alder
Alder
Alder pruning is best performed from late spring to summer. When pruning the alder tree, make sure to remove dying and diseased branches to prevent the problem from spreading. Avoid tearing the wood and bark, as this can attract bugs and make the tree prone to disease. Make sure to dispose of any infested twigs and branches. Most common alder pests are beetles, aphids and caterpillars, so keep an eye on them and remove any branches infested by them. Trim the small branches or stems that grow off the leading trunk, as well as branches that protrude out from the rest of the tree. That will make your tree's look uniform and well-shaped.
Ash
Ash
The best time to prune ash trees is from late spring to summer. When pruning ash trees, use the three-step trimming method. This method consists of cutting the underside of the damaged and diseased branches. Make sure the cut passes a quarter of the way through the branch, about half a meter from its collar. Then, cut the branch completely from the top side by cutting 2 cm past the initial cut. When the branch falls, remove the stump, and with this, your mountain ash tree pruning is completed.
Elm
Elm
Elm tree surgery is advisable once every three years, where you can apply minor pruning each year. Elm trees are prone to Dutch elm disease, and first symptoms are usually manifested in early summer when leaves start yellowing and wilting. You can tell that branches are affected by the disease if you notice dieback from the tip. With time, these branches will turn down, forming a ‘shepherd’s crook’ effect. Make sure to remove these as soon as possible, as diseased elm trees pose a threat to nearby elm trees. Once pruned, dispose of any dead limbs or even consider burning them, as they're bark beetles' favourite place to invade.
Willow
Willow
When pruning willow trees, pay attention to branches growing too close to each other, as well as weak branches, which usually break when the tree matures. Removing the closely growing branches is not only for aesthetic reasons but also to maintain the tree's health. Generally, willow tree pruning is performed to eliminate broken branches and reduce the size of trailing ones. The latter is usually done to prevent them from hanging over and blocking footways. Willow tree pollarding is an important task as branches grow quickly, and become prone to breakage. That's why when pruning a willow tree, providing spacing between branches is necessary, as this reduces the risk of breakage and encourages air circulation.

Whitebeam
Whitebeam
Whitebeam also belongs to tree types that take care of themself. In some cases, pruning whitebeam can lead to an adverse effect. The tree doesn't grow vigorously, and that's why it requires irregular and light, formal pruning. Still, keep in mind that crossing, damaged, or diseased branches need removing. Also, to keep the tree's overall neat look, make sure to remove any shoots growing unruly. Observe the timing, as whitebeam tree pruning, done in the wrong time of the year, will lead to sap bleeding, which attracts aphids and blister mites. These pests will become active in the spring and will affect the leaves leading to black spots formation. Nevertheless, the tree's health is not affected, but only its aesthetics.
Hornbeam
Hornbeam
Hornbeam pruning time is best performed in late summer to avoid sap bleeding and diseases. Generally, the hornbeam tree is hardy and low maintenance. These trees are pretty good at taking care of themselves and don't require regular pruning. However, when pruning hornbeam, the idea is to remove diseased branches and provide the tree with a nice airflow by eliminating any crossing or overcrowded shoots. Remember, hornbeam pruning should be light, so don't overdo it.
Horse chestnut
Horse chestnut
Horse chestnut Horse chestnut tree pruning should be performed when the tree is young and trainable. When pruned young, and once the crowded branches are removed, the horse chestnut tree will grow as trained and get itself sufficient air and light. Matured trees are doing well without pruning. Of course, you need to remove any diseased and damaged branches but avoid disturbing the tree if there is no need. Horse chestnut is prone to several diseases that may occur after pruning, and the transmission is more likely.
Plane
Plane
London plane tree pruning is performed to achieve an attractive canopy. If you want your plane tree to develop a tall trunk, then better prune it in June by removing the lower branches. However, if you spot diseased branches in the cold weather, worry not as these can be removed at any time of the year. Also, there is one thing you should watch out for, and this is the fungal disease called plane anthracnose, which causes leaves to fall. When pruning a London plane tree, look out for brown lesions and untimely leaf loss. That could happen between spring and summer, but most of the time the tree recovers eventually.

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Deciduous trees that need Summer pruning

Cherry
Cherry
Pruning cherry trees is a bit of a complex job since the tree's age matters a lot. When pruning a cherry tree, which is 1-3 years old, your intention should be to form a good branch structure. Once the tree turns four years, keep an eye on fungal infections and remove any diseased branches, as well as crossing ones. From the fifth year onwards, your cherry tree pruning efforts should be reduced to a minimum - once in two years, at the most. When the tree is mature and turns five years, then fruit quality decreases quickly, and your job is to stimulate new growth by cutting old branches. The cherry tree's health depends a lot on how you prune it as low hygiene can lead to canker or even a Silver Leaf Disease. Sterilising the equipment before and between every cherry tree is mandatory. Also, make sure to use cutting equipment that is sharp enough to avoid damaging stems and branches. The best time to prune cherry trees is on a dry day.
Almond
Almond
Pruning almond trees needs to be performed once the first growing season is over and once the tree develops a primary scaffold. Since the upright branches are the strongest limbs, make sure they remain on the tree but prune branches that grow towards the centre. Also, remove any broken, crossing and dead branches with keeping the shape in mind. Almond pruning is necessary for the second growing season, as well, when the tree is dormant. Here, we aim to remove lower branches and centre-growing shoots, since they prevent the air circulation and light penetration. Once the tree matures and reaches four years, all the pruning is about structure creation. From here on, almond tree pruning is performed to reduce the size and removal broken, crossing and diseased branches.
Apricot
Apricot
Apricot tree pruning should take place in summer, and your main goal should be to form a good tree structure. To do so, select the branches that grow outwards from the trunk and these should remain on the tree. Shorten the chosen branches by about 10 cm with a slanted cut. The other branches are ready to go, namely the lower ones (45 cm from the ground), as well as these that grow upwards. Once cut, seal the bruises with an anti-fungal paint. In the following years, you aim to remove old growth, as apricot trees fruit only on young branches. When pruning apricot trees, make sure to remove any damaged and diseased branches, as well as those that give no fruit. Also, keep an eye on branches that are competing with the main leader branches. Apricots grow vigorously when in the growing season and trimming these to their parent branch is important, so they can't shade the fruit.
Peach
Peach
Pruning a peach tree should be done in summer by taking into account the tree's age. It's important to stick to the right timing when pruning peach trees, as early and late summer are two different things. Your first-summer pruning task includes selecting two upward growing shoots and one growing halfway between them. You need to tie them to the main branch and cut other shoots to their main steam. Second-summer peach tree pruning is about shortening the main branches by half and cutting downward-growing shoots. During the third summer, pruning involves repeating the second-summer instructions. Henceforth, every next early summer, when pruning peach trees, shorten back any leafy shoots that shade the fruit. If the growth is not that vigorous, you can skip that part. Once you harvest the fruits in late summer, choose the most robust branches between these, which you’ve left in the beginning, and cut their branches above this shoot.

Magnolia
Magnolia
Pruning a magnolia tree is not really recommended. This species requires pruning only in specific circumstances - to shape the tree and to remove any dead wood if any. When pruning a young magnolia tree, remove weak and crossing shoots, as well as long shoots that keep tipping back. Avoid pruning your mature magnolia tree, as this can cause dieback and the appearance of vigorous water shoots. If you aim to form the tree's crown, let it open and balance it by thinning out stems to the trunk. Deciduous magnolia trees don't require regular pruning, on the contrary, they can get stressed by it. Note that pruned magnolia trees need time to recover and that can take two or three years. Best time to prune magnolia trees is in summer, since the tree will bleed sap if pruned in winter or spring.
Robinia
Robinia
Robinia tree pruning should take place in late summer. That is due to the tree's ability to bleed sap when pruned in the wrong time, and with the bleeding come bugs, which lead to numerous diseases. When pruning a Robinia tree, take under consideration unnecessary suckers and damaged branches, as they can pose a hazard. In other cases, pruning Robinia is not recommended, as the tree is prone to rot and doesn't respond well to constant pruning. Also, when pruned, Robinia trees tend to grow new shoots vigorously but they tend to be weak at the same time.
Apple
Apple
Start pruning apple trees once the summer comes and assure your tools are sharp enough. Remove diseased and dying branches and reduce the previous year's growth. This aims to support new growth and keep the tree's shape. Another apple pruning rule is to leave young lateral branches, as they will develop buds and fruit in the second year. However, if you notice any young but crossing laterals, when pruning an apple tree, make sure to remove them as the growth will become too congested. Also, cut back any shoots that grow towards the centre and such that grow underside, as they won't receive enough light and will give no fruit.
Poplar
Poplar
Poplar trees don't require frequent pruning once they reach maturity. You need to apply just some light pruning, removing dead branches and tidying them up is enough to improve the airflow, light penetration and keep the tree's overall health. However, poplar tree pruning should take place as soon as you notice suckers, as they spread rapidly. In some cases, when the tree is invaded by suckers, your only option is to remove the whole tree. Poplar pruning should be performed in summer, but sucker growth can be dealt with at any time of the year. Also, sucker removal needs to be as close as possible to the root, so they can't grow back.

Deciduous trees that need Summer or Winter pruning

Birch
Birch
First of all, when you're about to perform birch pruning, remove side growing shoots, so they can't spoil the tree's appearance. Don't be tempted to remove more than a quarter of the canopy, since that will weaken the tree and lead to fatal results. When pruning birch trees, use sharp pruners, so you can make a single cut. Choose branches that are less than 5 cm in diameter and remove them from the collar. To prevent diseases from spreading, clean your tools with diluted bleach between every pruning. For branches above 5 cm in diameter, you'll need to make a cut underneath and work upwards, so the bark is safe from stripping.
Maple
Maple
When it comes to pruning Japanese maple trees, don'ts are more than dos. Don't be impatient and never chop whippy side branches, as this will stimulate their growth and spreading. Just leave them, and they'll form an architectural framework. Since we are talking about the framework, the best thing you can do to encourage a good shape is to leave the maple tree unpruned as long as possible. Just remove any dead or damaged branches and leave all the rest alone. Do not remove too much from the crown, as this will put the tree under stress, for sure. Do not remove too much foliage, as well, especially for the same reason. When pruning maples trees, never shorten the height, as this can't be controlled without damaging the tree. The best tip to follow when it comes to maple tree pruning is to cut outside the collar, since cuts made too close will not heal and lead to the stumps to decay.
Walnut
Walnut
When pruning a walnut tree, you aim to encourage side shoots growth. Regular walnut pruning is unnecessary, just keep an eye on dead or crossing branches and remove them. Best time to prune walnut trees is in mid-summer, as the species is prone to sap bleeding.
Oak
Oak
Best time to prune oak trees is in December to January, as then, the weather is cold and the presence of the greedy bugs is minimal. When you prune an oak tree, the cut will bleed sap and attract bugs, which causes fungal disease. While young oaks respond well to pruning and this way, produce new growth, mature ones don't require such pruning. In most cases, the purpose of oak tree pruning is to correct an issue, be it dead or diseased branches or to improve air and light penetration. Oak pruning should be undertaken before the growing season, namely in the Spring. Wounds need time to recover, and that should be before the onset of Spring.

Takeaways: 

  • Pruning is essential to the tree's health maintenance and whilst many forest trees grow well without interference, landscape trees won't make it without our care. 
  • Inappropriate pruning can lead to many troubles and even shorten your tree's life. That's why you need to be familiar with the tree's biology and needs. 
  • Every new shoot has the potential to grow healthy and shouldn't be removed without reason. 
  • Trees are mainly pruned to improve light penetration and air circulation, and corrective measures won't necessarily improve their health.