There are many reasons to prune a tree, but today I want to show you how to prune for maximum visual appeal. Trimming a tree is pretty easy, but there are some things you should know before you make the first cut so that you don’t damage your tree.

Deciduous trees can get messy-looking if you never prune them. Here’s a photo of my Schubert Chokecherry. I’ve never pruned it but it’s time. In fact, I wish I had pruned it last spring but I missed the window.

Note: you can use the same basic procedure in this blog post to prune most apple trees, other fruit, and berries, or ornamentals.

before image
Schubert Choke Cherry before pruning.

How to prune a tree for health:

  1. Choose a safe time to prune your tree. Late winter is best for most trees but there are exceptions. Look it up if you aren’t sure.
  2. Check your local laws. For example, Edmonton has a bylaw that makes it illegal to prune your elm trees at certain times of the year–no joke! There are actually good reasons for these laws so please obey them.
  3. Clean your tools. You don’t want to transfer pathogens from your tools to your trees. A good wash in soapy water should do the trick. And there’s bleach, if you feel that’s necessary.
  4. Remove unhealthy branches. Dead, dying, and diseased branches need to go.
  5. Remove branches that are rubbing. I removed several branches that were rubbing or were going to rub as the tree continued to grow.
  6. Remove branches growing into the center of the tree. They’ll be a problem eventually and a really dense center is not attractive.
  7. Remove branches that are very close to other branches on the same limb. Tight branching doesn’t look good and it could become a weak point in the tree where disease or weather can cause damage.

Those are the essential pruning steps to keep your tree healthy. With that out of the way, you can now continue pruning your tree for visual appeal. Keep in mind that you should never remove more than 25% of the foliage/branches. If your tree is in really rough shape you might have to prune it over a couple seasons to ensure you don’t stress it too much.

How to prune for visual appeal:

My wife and I surveyed our tree. Because we had made so many cuts in the steps above, we felt the safest path forward for the tree was to limit the number of additional cuts we made while trying to “shape” the tree. We worked from the most important cuts to the least and stopped when we hit about 25%.

  1. Establish the lowest permanent branch. Prune anything below that point.
  2. Prune branches growing straight up, straight down, or at odd angles. I had to make some tough choices but when in doubt, I left the branch. I can always prune it in the future.
  3. Prune branches to establish visual “balance”. This was the most subjective step of all. My wife and I spent quite a bit of time debating how to make the tree look “balanced”.

Here’s the final result.

after image
Schubert Chokecherry tree after pruning

I would have liked to trim more but we didn’t want to risk the health of the tree. We’ll take another pass at pruning the tree next year.

Here’s the before and after side by side:

how to prune a tree before imagehow to prune a tree after image
Schubert Chokecherry tree before (left) and after (right)


I hope that answers your questions about how to prune a tree. It’s really not that difficult. You just have to follow a few basic rules and you should be fine. The two most important points (as far as the tree is concerned) is that you need to choose the right time of year to prune your tree and you shouldn’t prune too much at once.

Schubert Chokecherries make a great urban yard tree. Check them out if you’re interested.

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