Trimming Your Trees

Topping a tree creates a dangerous tree. Topping (hatracking) is the term used to describe over-pruning a tree by cutting it so badly that it is left with few or no leaves on the branches.
Trees should never be topped. Topping creates hazardous trees because the wood inside the cut branch begins to decay that leads to internal rot. The sprouts which grow in response to topping are not well secured to the topped branch, and they can easily split from the tree as they grow larger.

Trees with a thick canopy should be thinned. Avoid removing more than 25-30% of the foliage per year. Most trees do not need to be pruned each year. Thin the canopy when it becomes thick (hard to see through). Some interior branches should be removed to allow wind to go through the canopy. The aerial roots of Ficus trees should not be removed.

A tree with multiple leaders (trunks) will become hazardous to people and property as the tree grows larger.
Never allow trees to grow with multiple upright leaders. These trees may look handsome when young, but will become hazardous as they grow older. Always prune so that branches are spaced 18-36 inches apart along the main trunk. In trees with a single trunk, be sure the main branches form an angle with the trunk of 40 degrees or more.

Horizontally oriented branches are better attached to trees than upright branches. Upright branches are poorly attached to trunks. Horizontally-oriented branches (45° or greater) are usually well secured to trunks. A branch growing in an upright manner, parallel to the trunk, becomes a second trunk. The tree is said to have a double leader. Double leaders are dangerous because they can easily split from the tree during a storm.

Tree roots should not be damaged. Root pruning and digging around tree roots make the tree more likely to fall during a storm. Also, root injuries increase the occurrence of plant disease. When planting, the top of the root-system should be a little higher than the surrounding soil level. The width of planting holes needs to be a minimum of two to three times the diameter of the root ball, and the depth no deeper than the root ball.

Buy good quality trees, and trees that are adapted to Florida. Buy "Florida Fancy” or grade #1 trees whenever possible. These trees have 1 trunk and need little additional training to form a good quality tree. 

The best time to trim trees is when they are young.
Not only are the branches easier to reach, but the resulting wound will be much smaller and callus over more quickly.

Choose trees that suit the area.
Large trees need a large rooting zone. Tree roots extend 3 - 5 times the diameter of the canopy. If the planting area is small or the yard is small, choose a tree species that naturally stays small. Avoid planting trees near septic systems, pools, sidewalks, driveways, utility lines, and buildings. Tree trunks and roots expand in girth as they age. Know the mature height and width of the tree, and take this into account when choosing the planting site. A tree with a four-inch trunk caliper needs 200 cubic feet of soil space.


Never cut a branch flush with the trunk. That is, never make a flush cut.
Always cut to the outside of the branch collar, which is located at the base of every branch. This collar is sometimes easily seen as a swelling where the branch meets the trunk. When pruning in this manner, it may appear as though a small stub is left on the trunk. However, properly done, this technique removes the entire branch and does not injure the trunk.
downed tree.jpg
Large limbs should not be removed unless they are obstructing traffic, pedestrians, or are hazardous.
Avoid removing branches that are more than 2” in diameter. The larger the pruning wound, the slower it will callus over (plants don’t heal, they seal). An open wound is an avenue for disease and insect infestation.

Wound dressings and pruning paints do not prevent wood rot. Wound dressings do not prevent wood decay behind a pruning cut. They provide no benefit to the tree. Some research indicates that wound dressings actually promote decay in certain situations. If pruning paints or wound dressings are to be used for cosmetic purposes, apply only a very thin coat. Only proper pruning practices prevent wood rot.

Avoid lion tailing and “overlifting".
  • Lion tailing refers to removing smaller branches on large branches, leaving the foliage only on the ends of branches (See above image). The limbs will look like a lion’s tail.
  • Overlifting refers to removing lower branches of trees. These harmful practices make trees more vulnerable to wind damage and rot. The common guide is that the lower half of the tree needs to have 2/3 of the foliage and branches.
Palms don’t need hurricane pruning. Palms are adapted to wind storms. Removing fronds is of no benefit, and is detrimental to the palm. Even dying leaves benefit the health of the palm and should not be removed until completely brown. Only coconuts and large palm seeds should be removed during hurricane season.