Gear-obsessed editors choose every product we review. We may earn commission if you buy from a link. How we test gear.

How to Prune and Fertilize Your Trees

Get a crash course in the easiest ways to keep your trees healthy and vibrant.

Pruning trees
Getty Images

Many of us spend an inordinate amount of time tending our lawns and gardens while practically ignoring our trees. And that's too bad, because healthy, properly trimmed trees can dramatically enhance the beauty and increase the value of any home.

The amount of time spent on tree maintenance is, of course, related to the number of trees on your property, but also to the age of the trees. Mature trees need little more than an occasional pruning and a dose of fertilizer every year or two. Younger trees, however, require a bit more work to ensure they live a long and healthy life.

Here are a few easy-to-follow guidelines for the two most important, but least practiced, of all tree-maintenance tasks: pruning and fertilizing. (Note that these suggestions are general guidelines. For more information pertaining to your specific region and tree species, consult with a local nursery, arborist, or landscape designer.)

A Great Tool

Stephen Lewis

The Felco F-2 pruner proves the old saying that only cheap tools are expensive. After many years of use and much sharpening, it's still my workhorse pruner. Every part of it can be replaced. But unless you're a master gardener, you're unlikely to wear anything out.

Cost analysis aside, the Felco pruner is a joy to use. The deadly sharp edge makes short work of creating a swag for your front door or, more importantly, pruning cuts. I've noticed that when properly sharpened, a Felco cut heals very quickly. A clean cut increases plant health. And I've done enough surgery on my plants, and on those of my neighbors, to know.


All trees need to be pruned from time to time, if for no other reason than to remove dead, broken, and diseased branches. Young trees should be pruned annually for the first few years to control unruly and unbalanced growth. Frequent pruning can keep a tree from outgrowing a pleasing shape.

Use small pruning shears to trim branches up to 3/4 inch thick, and lopping shears for branches up to about 1-1/2 inches thick. Cutting branches any larger will require a bow saw or pruning saw.

To safely reach high branches, buy or rent a long-pole pruning saw. Regardless of the tool used, it's important to keep the blades sharp to produce fast, clean cuts. Dull tools won't sever a branch cleanly, which can cause the branch to rip bark from the trunk and expose the tree to a higher risk of disease. And after pruning a diseased limb, be sure to dip the pruning tool into bleach to kill disease-carrying organisms. Otherwise, you could potentially transfer the organisms to the next tree.

With a few exceptions, light trimming can be done any time of the year. However, heavy pruning should be done during the late fall or winter, when the tree is dormant. Pruning is also much easier once the leaves have fallen because you can clearly see which branches need attention. Most flowering trees are best pruned right after the flowers start to wither and die. That way you won't remove next season's buds.

Needleleaf evergreens, such as firs, spruces, and pines, should be pruned to maintain a compact shape with thick, bushy branches. Each year, between late spring and midsummer, evergreens produce long supple shoots called candles that will eventually grow into branches. Use pruning shears to remove one-half to two-thirds of each candle. The result will be a healthier, denser tree.

5 Tree-Trimming Tips

• Wind blowing over crossing branches will cause the two branches to rub together, damaging their bark. Prune away one or both crossing branches.

• Trees often develop a codominant stem that competes with the main one. If the errant stem isn't removed, the tree will have a weakened multi-forked trunk.

• Remove upward- and downward-pointing branches that emerge from an otherwise healthy lateral branch. These oddly angled branches are trouble for the lateral branch, liable to weaken, not strengthen it.

• Trim a broken branch as soon as possible to produce a clean stub and to reduce the chance of fungal infection entering through a ragged break.

• Suckers, small perpendicular branch-like shoots that come out of the tree's trunk, make it look unattractive and are prone to breaking. Prune them close to the trunk.


First, consider the age of the tree. Young trees, five years old or less, should be fertilized three times a year: early spring before the buds appear, early summer after the blossoms open, and in the fall when the leaves begin to drop off. Mature, firmly established trees need only be fertilized once or twice yearly.

There are three basic types of tree fertilizers: granulated, liquid, and spikes. Granulated—available in powder or pellets—can be spread by hand or with a broadcast or drop spreader. Liquid fertilizers must be sprayed—never poured out—to ensure even coverage. Slow-release spikes are driven into the ground around the tree.

Granulated fertilizers are the easiest to use, but regardless of which type you choose, start applying it about 12 inches away from the trunk, so as not to burn the bark. Then work out to just beyond the drip line of the tree, which is just beneath the outer tips of the branches.

Immediately water the area under the tree to dissolve the fertilizer and speed its delivery to the root system. The amount of fertilizer you need to apply is based on the fertilizer type and tree species. Carefully read the package label for the recommended spread rate for your particular tree.

This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Lawn and Garden