Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tree Pruning, Part One: Safety

A flock of chain saws has moved into the 'hood over the past few days, and we can hear them chattering amongst themselves like the low, muted, FM-voiced mating call of some oddly manic species of bird. It seems that the ice storm has plunged us straight into pruning season, so I thought I might share a post or three on the subject for my friends and neighbors who might be thinking about taking down a branch.

My father taught me how to prune trees many years ago, and I've enjoyed doing it ever since. There's something very satisfying about shaping a tree to grow in an aesthetically pleasing way, so much so that when I run out of pruning chores around my own house, I am hard pressed not to carry my saw with me and lop off errant branches on neighbors' trees, or trees on campus, or along public medians...

Before we get into the nitty gritty of what to remove and how to do it, however, let's cover a few safety tips--some taught to me by my dad, and some I've learned the hard way.

1) Dad always told me to always be mindful that a branch thicker than your wrist can break a bone if it hits you. A branch as big as your thigh can kill you. The dangers associated with pruning should not be underestimated.

It was a branch as big as my upper arm that fell the wrong way once and caused a compound fracture of my thumb, and subsequently left me incarcerated in this medieval-looking contraption for a few weeks:
The thumb has never worked properly since. It's a good thing it was on my non-drawing hand, or you wouldn't be getting any Pearl and Henrietta cartoons on Fridays.

I'd been pruning trees for several years when that accident occurred, but I still made a mistake (I'll cover what it was in just a moment), so I seldom prune branches bigger than my wrist anymore, and I think twice about pruning ones as big as my arm. The thigh-sized ones are always passed along to professional tree surgeons. My advice is that you consider the same policy.

Oh, and I learned something else from that accident: If you walk into an emergency room with a bone sticking out, you go to the head of the line.

2) Cut large branches in sections to reduce the weight. This will allow each section to fall straight down. In diagram "A" the cuts are made in the order shown here, with the "A" cut made first, and the direction of fall (hopefully) straight down:

In Diagram "B" the limb has either broken off (as in the photo at the top of this post), or some foolish person (we shan't say who this might have been) has decided to skip cutting the limb in sections and cut it at its junction with the trunk; in this instance, it began to fall before the cut was finished:

At this point, it is anyone's guess where that heavy limb will go when it is liberated from the trunk; it could fall straight down, or it could swing straight toward your head. It could be an angry limb, frustrated at years of children always climbing on it. It could be a limb with malice in its heart. Beware.

If you find yourself in this situation, go back to square one and begin cutting it--carefully--in sections, both to reduce the weight of the branch and to free the sections nearer the trunk to fall straight down.

(Okay, I'll admit that the person in the scenario outlined above was me. I got in a hurry and decided not to cut the limb in sections. My thumb was a real hero in the moment of crisis, though, reaching up just in time to keep the branch from striking my head.)

3) Never reach up directly over your head or behind it to cut a branch. Always position yourself so that the branch is in front of you when you make your cut. Especially if you are wielding a chain saw.

4) Try not to be in a position where you have to climb a ladder or in a tree to cut a large branch, since it can fall and knock you down. Use a pole saw instead, and stay off the ladders if possible.

Using a pole saw will also encourage you to cut smaller branches, rather than larger, when they are high up. And as long as we're on that subject, I'm not a big fan of chainsaws for homeowner pruning, and not just because of the danger involved. A chainsaw in unpracticed hands is not a scalpel; it is a bludgeon. Trees are living things, and you'll want to make cuts that encourage wound healing; this is easier to do with a hand saw.

If the branch is so big that you don't want to prune it with a hand saw, you should consider paying for a tree surgeon anyway. And yes, tree surgeons charge money for jobs that look like you can do yourself.

Here is the breakdown of the cost-benefit analysis of hiring a professional versus doing it yourself:
  • Tree surgeon: ~$150-$300 for an average tree pruning
  • Hospital and physical therapy bills for compound thumb fracture: ~$5000

5) You should make three cuts to fell a branch bigger than an inch in diameter (I'll explain why in Part Two). Always make the final cut from above, not below, since cutting from below will trap the saw as the branch begins to fall. This is especially important if you've decided to use the chainsaw anyway.

Anyone else have pruning safety tips? Feel free to add to the conversation in the comments section. I'm always looking for ways to stay out of the emergency room.

Tomorrow, in Part Two, I'll cover how to choose which branches to cut and how best to cut them to promote wound healing. In Part Three, I'll hit the streets with my trusty camera to show some photos of trees that are well-pruned, and some that are not.


  1. Susan, Excellent...I've always wanted to learn how to prune smaller trees. The Viburnum rufidulums need a little cleaning. gail

  2. Sane and helpful advice, Susan, and wonderfully written and illustrated.

    I've got the shivers, though, thinking about your bone sticking out of your thumb.

  3. I am terrified of pruning and your thumb story (especially the sticking-out-bone part) is not making me any more eager to learn! One more tip - read up on ladder safety, and maybe have a spotter. My mom fell off a pruning ladder recently and was lucky not to have any broken bones. She admits that she was in a hurry and had set the ladder improperly, on a hill. Stay safe, Susan!!

  4. Gail--stay tuned for parts two and three!

    Pam--Sorry about the shivers, but that was the point. Serious business, tree pruning...

    Karen--Glad to hear that your mom is Okay. Ladders can be pretty scary. I know that the older I get, the more cautious I get about them.

  5. You have a great points. Thanks for the advice. As always safety first.

  6. This article is very good & informative.I have gain so much information from this blog.One thing i want to say that Be alert when doing any type of tree work.Thanks for sharing.

  7. Additionally, look at regardless of whether there are any snags toward any path of the tree, including vehicles, structures, and different trees.tree removal


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