Deciduous trees are losing their leaves. Does this signal a time for pruning? Generally, no. The preferred time for pruning most woody plants is late winter to early spring. These plants will be initiating grown in spring and will be better able to deal with cut surfaces. Plants pruned in fall and winter, as growth ceases, are less able to deal with pruning cuts. However, there are some types of pruning that can be practiced at any time of the year.
Damaged or diseased limbs can be removed at any time. These as well as limbs damaged by weather may present a hazard to people or property nearby should they fail and fall from the tree. This may especially be a problem in winter when snow and ice accumulate on limbs, adding weight, and increasing the changes of limb failure. Autumn, once leaves have fallen from trees, is a great time to inspect limbs to discern whether damage has occurred and assess the need for removal.
To remove a damaged limb, look for natural growth points. If only part of the limb is damaged, prune back to where it joins the next larger branch. If the entire limb is damaged, prune back to the trunk. When pruning large limbs take care not to damage bark that remains on the tree. If you can remove the branch with hand pruners, simply cut the limb back to the next branch. If there is a swollen area at the base of the branch, allow this to remain.
If you feel you will need a hand saw to remove the branch it is best to use a 3-point cut that involves undercutting the limb before removing it. With a 3-point cut, the first cut, a partial cut less than 1 inch deep, is made under the limb several inches away from where the final cut will occur. The second cut is made a few inches further out on the limb. This cut starts from the top of the limb and completely removes the limb. If the limb is heavy it will begin to sag under its own weight and may rip the underside of the bark before the cut is complete. The first cut stops this ripping before is damages areas you wish to retain. What is left is a stub of the original limb. Leaving stubs when pruning is damaging to trees because trees are unable to deal with the cut surface. Remove the stub with the third cut by sawing through it near the point it meets the trunk or next larger limb. The cut should be fairly flush to the next branch but if there is a swollen base on the limb, allow that to remain when removing the limb.
There is no need to apply paint or oil to the cut surfaces, it is healthier to the tree to leave the cuts bare.
Submitted by Dr. Rick Durham, Consumer Horticulture Extension Specialist, University of Kentucky