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Prime time to prune trees in Colorado is now, not in spring

Miles Blumhardt
Fort Collins Coloradoan

Pruning your trees might be one of the last things on your mind after we just experienced our coldest weather in several years.

But the temperature is climbing back to around 40 degrees by the weekend and the 50s by early next week, and now through early March is prime time to prune most trees in Colorado.

Many people wait until spring to prune, but for most trees pruning when trees are still dormant ensures the wound will close more rapidly, which greatly reduces the chance for disease.

That's why you see city of Fort Collins Forestry Department staff pruning city trees this time of year.

How to prune when there is not clearly identifiable branch collar.

Pruning now also can alleviate some of the problems seen in the spring when we have heavy, wet snow that breaks branches.

But before you get out the pruners, here are tips on what and how to prune, choosing the right tool for the job and what plants prefer to wait until later in the season.

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Have a pruning plan

Before you start cutting branches, ask yourself what it is you are trying to accomplish.

Reasons for pruning include the branches being dead, diseased, broken, overgrown or misshaped. Dead, diseased or broken branches should be pruned immediately, no matter the season.

For dead branches, avoid cutting into live tissue. Cut at the nearest point between dead and live tissue.

For diseased branches, disinfect your pruner blades between each cut with a solution of water containing 10% bleach.  

Pruning cuts made just outside the branch collars on a tree.

Unless it's a natural multi-stem tree, your goal should be to prune so there is one dominant leader. Determine the leader branch and then you can go to work. 

Look for branches that are rubbing, especially common in trees such as aspen, ash, crabapples and Canada red chokecherry.

Prune branches that are growing upright in the center of the tree that could rub on other branches.

To shape a tree, step back and look for branches that stick out from the natural shape of the tree. Cut one branch at a time and then step back, assess the shape and determine what other branches may need to be removed.

It's best not to remove more than one-quarter of a tree's branches in a year, as that can affect its growth and health.

With newly planted trees, only prune dead, damaged or crossing limbs or those interfering with the main stem.

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Illustration of the three-cut pruning method.

Proper pruning

Always prune just outside the branch collar, which is the raised or swollen area of the branch near where it meets the main trunk. It usually has wrinkled bark.

Some trees don't have defined branch collars. When the branch collar is not clearly identifiable, make the final cut at the angle that mirrors the angle of the branch bark ridge. That is the rough, slightly raised back found where the branch meets the main trunk. If the angle between the branch bark ridge and main tree trunk is 60 degrees, for example, make your cut at a 60-degree angle inward.

For larger branches, use a three-step pruning process:

  • Make a small undercut on the branch to prevent the bark from stripping into the tree when the branch falls. This removes much of the branch weight.
  • Cut just outside the undercut until the branch falls.
  • Remove the stub branch by pruning the branch just outside the collar branch.
City of Fort Collins forestry technician Rafael McLeod is shown pruning an elm tree on Grant Street on Monday, Feb., 1, 2021. McLeod rescued a man who fell through the ice on a pond at Fossil Creek Community Park on Jan. 15.

Tools for the job

Use hand pruners for branches less than a half-inch thick.

Use loppers for branches 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter.

Hand pruning saws can be used for a wide array of branches.

Use pole pruners or extension saws for limbs 20 feet or higher

Use chain saws for larger branches.

Consider calling professional tree trimming companies for larger pruning jobs.

When you're done, you can either use your trash can or yard waste bin, or haul the branches to a recycling yard such as Hageman Earth Cycle, 3501 E. Prospect Road, for a fee.

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Reporter Miles Blumhardt looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at milesblumhardt@coloradoan.com or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.