Pruning Neglected Trees

Got a neglected tree that needs some TLC?

Credit: Robbi Schultes

A cherry blossom tree.

A cherry blossom tree.


Can you give me some tips on pruning neglected trees – we recently moved and have a large flowering cherry in front and a large magnolia in the back, both taller than the house (rancher). Although they bloomed magnificently this year, they have obviously not been pruned for some years. The cherry overhangs the roof and is causing problems and the magnolia overhangs the neighbour’s garden and is rather large for our small plot. Can they be pruned in winter? And what sort of shaping can we do now, if any?

A: Chris-Hyde Lay, Arbourist; Bartlett Tree Expert

When pruning neglected trees I feel that the less-is-more approach is a good place to start.  The first question I would ask myself is what function does the tree play in my yard. Does it anchor the landscape, shade the house, offer habitat for wildlife or is it an issue just because it overhangs the neighbour’s yard?

Start your pruning plans by evaluating the tree’s structure and prune out any hazards. This pruning is referred to as crown cleaning. Crown cleaning is the removal of any dead, diseased, dying, rubbing, broken, structurally poor branches and maybe some of the water sprouts.

Cherry Tree Pruning

The second question I would have regarding the cherry tree is can it be raised above the roof while still maintaining an attractive look to the tree. The cherry pruning can be done now (winter) but do not take too much live wood out the first year.

Remember to respect the branch collar (the overlapping tissue which forms a swelling around the base of many branches where they meet the tree trunk). It is behind this branch collar that much of the tree’s defense mechanism lies. Cutting beyond the branch collar can cause the tree to be more prone to decay and disease.

If you feel the cherry is too large for the location, it can be successfully reduced or drop-crotch pruned (second year) although this is not a particularly recommended style of pruning unless necessary. Some trees will tolerate better than others. By reducing or drop-crotch pruning you must cut to a lateral branch that can assume the dominate role. This branch must be at least one third the size of the one that you are to remove. Before you begin, visualize the new canopy outline. I should also mention that many of the standard flowering cherries are grown on very vigorous root stock that can cause hardscape problems.

The magnolia should be pruned after it flowers in late spring or early summer. If possible, consider raising it over the neighbour’s yard to give more space.