Tree Trimming: How To Trim Large Branches

Tree Pruning
Before you prune a large tree, remember, not just any cut will do. (rik_de_groot/Getty Images)

If you’re trimming trees with heavy tree limbs, you have to be extra careful not to damage the bark or interfere with the tree’s natural healing response.

Doing it right is actually no more difficult than doing it wrong, particularly if you think ahead to how much work it would take to remove a dead tree!

Here’s how to cut large tree limbs in your yard in three simple steps.

Tree Limb
Improper cutting can lead to improper healing for a tree. (kookyguy/Getty Images Signature)

How Trees Heal

The truth is, trees don’t actually heal as we do. When you cut off a tree branch, the tree forms a special callous tissue (like a scar) that covers the wound to keep out disease and decay.

That scarred part of the tree will be there forever, sealed off so that the rest of the tree can keep growing. It’s very important to prune trees correctly so that we don’t interfere with this process – incorrect pruning will leave the tree weak and vulnerable to disease.

In the top photo, you can see the evidence of several large pruning cuts. The bumps show well-healed pruning scars, most of them completely covered over.

A “donut” shaped scar is normal, too. The callous tissue grows from the outside edges toward the center, so it’s still in the process of sealing over.

Tree Limb
These guidelines show how to properly prune your tree. (Paul Hein/Getty Images)

How to Cut a Tree Limb

When trimming trees, you need to prune the limbs first. Proper pruning of large tree limbs involves three cuts:

  • Cut #1, Notch Cut: Cut a small notch in the bottom of the limb, 2-3 feet away from the trunk, and about a quarter of the way through. This notch will keep the bark from splitting when you make the next cut.
  • Cut #2, Relief Cut: Just outside the notch, make a relief cut completely through the branch. This removes the weight of the branch so that you can make your final cut without the branch splitting and falling.
  • Cut #3, Final Cut: This is the one that matters! Your final cut should be right where the branch collar (that swollen bump) transitions to smooth branch bark. Follow the slant of the branch collar. If you can’t fit your saw into the crotch at the right angle, then cut it from the bottom up.

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Tree Knot
Be careful to not harm the trees natural healing response. (Robin Zeigler/Getty Images)

Common Tree Trimming Mistakes

Cutting the Branch Too Short: We used to think that branches should be cut off flush with the trunk – boy, were we ever wrong! The branch collar is responsible for forming the scar tissue. If you cut into the branch collar, the tree will have a very hard time recovering. When you see rotten holes in tree trunks or seeping wounds, you’re looking at the aftermath of cutting off the branch collar.

Leaving the Branch Too Long: The branch collar on the trunk can only do its job of allowing the wound to heal if all of the branches that it has to cover over have been removed while leaving the branch collar itself intact. In the photo on the right, you can see how the branch stubs that were left too long are interfering with and actually preventing the healing process from taking place.

Failure to Make the Relief Cuts: Before tree trimming, if you fail to make the relief cuts and remove most of the weight of the limb, you run the risk of having the branch split off. This can cause substantial damage to the trunk, as seen in the photo at right. This can make the wound on the trunk susceptible to disease and insect infestation and take much longer to heal.

Further Reading


  1. Hello and thanks for providing this information on cutting large branches. I have a mulberry tree that suffered substantial winter damage and the bark on some branches has died 360 degrees around the branch. It was so mushy all I had to do was rub it away, exposing the underlying wood. A) will these branches ever regain their bark or should I remove them? B) if I should remove them, when would be the best time to do so?

    Thank you.

  2. Good info on making the actual cut. And, the article is right to say that trees don’t actually heal; they seal. But the wound or resulting decay will stay there forever, likely getting worse with time – tree species and location play a large role in how much decay and how fast. What is not covered here is which branches to trim and why. Of course, that can be complex. Assuming you have a low branch that rubs on the roof or your vehicle, follow the above instructions. Otherwise, it is desirable to leave as many leaves on the tree as possible because that is where the food is made through photosynthesis. Of course, there are some branches that will need to be pruned from trees in urban environments. Why don’t trees in the forest need to be pruned? Trees in their natural environment grow differently due to the available light and phototropism (picture a flower in the kitchen window). What we are looking for is a strong central leader and good branch connections and spacing. The most important reason for pruning urban trees is to eliminate or reduce competing leaders by removal or reduction cuts. And if we know that a limb is a temporary branch, we also know that it will be removed one day, so it is a good idea to keep the diameter of that limb small so that the future wound from removal is also small. If in doubt, call a Certified Arborist.

    * ISA Certified Arborist
    * Alabama State Licensed:
    – Tree Surgeon
    – Landscape Designer
    – Landscape Contractor
    – Pest Control Supervisor

    Chris Francis Landscapes

  3. I found your site by a websearch. The instruction to trim at the branch collar is really great. What I was looking for was what to do if the collar was cut back and a doughnut hole has formed. If you can add a picture and explanation of that, it would be even better. Thanks.
    Larry Host
    Sacramento, California

  4. Larry,
    I’m not really following. The doughnut hole could be formed by woundwood rolling in. If that is the case, it should soon cover the entire wound. If there is dead wood beyond that woundwood, you can prune it out to allow the woundwood to completely close over the wound. Be careful not to cut into the branch collar or woundwood in the process. If someone has already cut into the branch collar, there really is not anything that can be done. If the tree has good vigor, it can eventually form woundwood over the cut, but it will be a larger wound, cut into the trunk tissue, and it will not have the “right stuff” if the branch collar has been cut off (as in a large flush cut).

    • ISA Certified Arborist 
    • Alabama State Licensed: 
      – Tree Surgeon 
      – Landscape Designer 
      – Landscape Contractor 
      – Pest Control Supervisor
    • Certified Landscape Professional 

    Chris Francis Landscapes & Tree Care

  5. We had a very large tree limb fall on to our car. How do you remove the branch without causing more damage to the car (landed on and destroyed the windshield). We will of course be using a chain saw, but fear the damage it may cause. Thank you!!!

  6. Call a professional. Your auto insurance carrier will pay for the removal. I fear your safety moreso than the car, but a professional can handle it.

    • ISA Certified Arborist
    • Alabama State Licensed:
    – Tree Surgeon
    – Landscape Designer
    – Landscape Contractor
    – Pest Control Supervisor
    • Certified Landscape Professional
    • AUFA Certified Urban Forester

    Chris Francis Tree Care

  7. Had a maple tree trimmed last year. They did a terrible job, and left us with a ‘broccoli’ looking tree. This year we have a lot of new growth and the branches are growing downward. Are these just suckers, and should they be removed?

  8. Sounds like they “topped” your tree. The new growth will be succulent and vigorous. Leave them there. Let them grow. Then, select which ones to keep. You will need to contact a Certified Arborist in your area to either consult with you or perform the correctional pruning. You will have to balance out letting the tree put on enough green to keep it alive with removing enough branches to keep it structurally sound.

    • ISA Certified Arborist
    • Alabama State Licensed:
    – Tree Surgeon
    – Landscape Designer
    – Landscape Contractor
    – Pest Control Supervisor
    • Certified Landscape Professional
    • AUFA Certified Urban Forester

    Chris Francis Tree Care

  9. So when are we going to get those drones that cut the 1 inch tops off the trees so we can keep them from ever getting that big and out of control? Hopefully the professionals will be getting them in a few years so we can hire them cheaper to do the job. Yeah, technology!!

  10. Wow, advocating putting arborists out of business and posting it right on the internet. Way to go! So glad my company can’t use drones to eliminate my job! Not yet anyway.

  11. Appreciate all the info. My tree was damaged when a company came through to put a lead line out to the sewer and dug up a lot of my root system. Since then, about 60% of the limbs are almost completely dead, to the point of cracking down the middle of the limb. The rest tho is sprouting new limbs up the base of the remaining live limbs, and at the base of the trunk. For the first few years after, it would sprout its flowers 2 months earlier than usual, and then drop it’s leaves. Now it is closer to the time it used to sprout flowers, but I’m not sure when to trim it and if I should put wound seal on and if I should cut the newer trunk base branches off as well? My wife wants me to cut the whole thing down. It’s such a beautiful dogwood, I hate to do that but I know it will never look the same again. Any advice? Thanks.

  12. 10 years ago during an ice storm, my really old (60 years old?) silver maple lost a huge, huge branch. The city came to make the cut clean. It started to heal, having the healing tissue make the donut scar, and then it stopped. Now I still have a huge hole where the branch once was and it seems that the tree is hollow, but in actual fact, the leaves are lush and it doesn’t look at all like it will die. It must be atlas 50 feet tall if not more.
    My question is, why did the scar tissue stop growing and will my tree die? Sometime squirrels hide paper and other junk in the hole. Should I clean it out regularly?

    • I was told to fill the hole with that spray foam that expands. I had a hole in the crotch of a huge maple that kept getting wet and rotting. I would clean it out all the time by hand
      I sprayed the foam deep inside the hole til it came out. It didn’t look pretty but it did the job. The hole slowly healed and pushed the foam out. It now is healed over nicely.
      No more rotted hole or moisture collecting there

      • Thanks for sharing your experience with the Today’s Homeowner community!
        TH community members helping other TH community members — we love it. 🙂

  13. Topping, tipping and lacing is always bad. When you remove the end of a branch or a limb, it forces inner branches to grow and it stimulates suckers which are inherently weak and will eventually snap off when they get too heavy. It also changes the natural shape and structure of the tree.

    The only reason to cut a healthy limb is when it interferes with other things such as traffic, high voltage wires, buildings, or sometimes other limbs, in which case it should be removed entirely using the techniques shown above.

    Sometimes people complain that a tree blocks their view or their signage. In those cases it is often better to cut the lower limbs so that the mass of the tree can grow above the view or signage.

    Here In San Diego we have hundreds of so-called tree services that have convinced homeowners, businesses and even governments to let them permanently ruin healthy trees by needlessly lopping off limbs. (They should be put out of business.)

    A properly pruned tree will not look as though it has ever been pruned, and most pruning can be done with a handsaw. On those occasions when I prune trees, I give a great deal of thought before making a cut and if I have any doubt, I wait a year or two and then re-evaluate. Not only does this improve my work, but it’s better for the tree to have amputations spread out over several seasons.

  14. If a pine tree branch is cut flush to the trunk will it cause more sap to drop out? I just had a very large pine tree trimmed some large 6″ diameter branches and the sap is dripping all over my deck.

  15. My husband took it upon himself to trim our clump of four River Birch trees. Not only did he remove limbs from the bottom, but he removed a number of branches in the middle of the trees. And he removed all the limbs from the smaller fourth tree within the clump, basically leaving only the trunk. Will that tree grow new limbs–will it even survive?

  16. I have a young Catalpa tree that I want to train to have a single trunk. It now has a huge limb coming off the trunk at about 6 -12 inches above the ground. This limb now has about 20% or more of the total leafage of the tree. Each spring the tree has moderate die back – but puts out lots of vigorous new growth. Is it safe to cut off this lower limb to improve the look of the tree and prepare it for a stronger single trunk at the center?

  17. There is a tree that belongs to my neighbors this tree is throwing a lot of trash, branches and has broken my fence twice now. Its roots is grwoing underneath my swimming pool system. It’s picking up my fence and I can never get the owner to contact me.

  18. i have a magnolia tree that has like 4 of the donut hold wounds that ever healed. I was told to put hot tar in the holes to seal them or the tree will die from the inside out. What do I do to save my magnolia?

  19. We have a sycamore tree planted next to our septic tank. We plan to try and move it next January but I was wondering if I went ahead and trimmed the limbs back if that would keep the roots from spreading out? I was told a long time ago that the roots will only extend to the tip of the limbs or branches? It’s only been there about 3 to 4 years and we don’t want to kill it. Just move it away from our septic tank and pool.

  20. I recently got a house. For some reason, all the pines growing in yard are only 4 ft apart (which i feel is preventing them form filling out and looking nice. The trees are approximate 20 years old and maybe 17 ft tall. MY question is … is there a way to cut, trim, prune to encourage the trees to fill out properly? or do i have to remove some of them?

  21. We have a fruitless mulberry tree and there is a large crack on one of the branches flush to the tree. I noticed seeping this morning. Is there no other way to fix this but to cut it and do I need to put something on the cut to keep it from seeping.

  22. I have an ornamental plum tree that suffered winter damage after the polar vortex last year (I live in MN). The main central branch has apparently completely died and has produced no leaves this year. The secondary branch is doing quite well, flowering as well as leafing out. Can I cut off the central branch and then prop up the secondary branch to try to train it to grow upwards rather than out? If not, is there a way to save the tree? Thanks!

  23. I live in Central Florida and have a huge camphor tree in my front yard. One of the large lower limbs (10 ft. off the ground) holds a swing, but splits into two pretty large branches further out. It also extends out over our vehicles and when it rains hard, that branch comes down and touches our vehicle. I want to cut off that one branch, but don’t want to weaken the overall strength of the limb because it holds the swing. What should I do?

  24. We have a 150 year old apple tree which over the years has been pruned (by previous owners) some noted to be good leaving the donut but others really bad causing deep crevasses. We have attempted to prune back a branch and found that the whole branch has a large hollow through the entirety of the trunk. I’m assuming this is due to incorrect pruning back the branches. Is there a chance that the whole tree is hollow and what do you suggest we do?

  25. Now I know how to trim my tree but it doesn’t say when would be the best time to trim the tree or does it matter? The lower limbs of my tree have to be cut because I’m getting a riding mower and I’ll hit my head on these limbs but I don’t know when to cut them? Any help is appreciated.

  26. I have a three year old wildly unruly maple tree that looks like it needs Edward Scissorshand’s magic. It’s July in Illinois and I want to know if I can trim limbs for a more shapely looking tree.

  27. We have two very large oak trees, at least 120 years old. If I trim two branches one side, at my neighbor’s request, will that tend to destabilize the remaining tree?

  28. I have a large cottonwood tree in my front yard and the ground below it simply would keep anything alive. I couldn’t figure it out for the longest time until I noticed a large amount of shade the tree was creating on a particularly sunny day. I read from a few places that you could “lace a tree”. I wasn’t even aware this was a thing and then I found this blog (which was super helpful) in helping me understand what it meant and the possible benefits. I got the tree laced and have not had a problem with grass growing under the tree. Thanks for the detailed blog and the great instructional pictures!

  29. My issue is a tree in my yard that grows up into the power lines by the street. Only 1/3 of the tree gets near the lines but our local power company sends someone out to “trim” the tree. They always just cut that same side and the other sides are now way to long and it looks like the tree is way to heavy on 2 sides. I’m afraid it’s going to crack it down the middle because the tree is really 2 trees that have grown together over time. Could that happen? Can I request the power company to trim and balance the weight of the other part of the tree? Any response would be appreciated.

  30. Well written article! More in-depth than you typically see. Great guide for those who decide to go the do-it-yourself route. Some basic safety tips would be great though!

  31. Outstanding article. Spoke directly to my concerns of doing damage to a beautiful and healthy tree. Finally, it gives me a great “argument” to purchase the chain saw I’ve been eyeing !!!!! Thanks for the great advice and directions. Richie

  32. I agree with how trees need to be cut. When they are done right it leaves a big branch sticking out that can be really dangerous if its too low to the ground for kids heads to hit it. Will it kill the tree if you don’t leave a heal.

  33. The neighbor has a large mulberry tree in their yard with many branches hanging over in my yard, two of which have split and fallen in my yard, one time on my house and one time on my fence. One, we took care of and the other they had cut down. Two days ago a third one fell onto my patio/picnic table/umbrella and part of my pool. Neither of us want to claim it on our ins as we have $1,000 deduct. We believe that when their branch fell a few wks ago and they had it cut, it weakened the rest of the branches and caused this one to fall. They DO NOT BELIEVE that this is the case. Could that be possible? And WHO is responsible for taking care of this? We have repeatedly asked them to trim their entire tree but they just look at me like I am crazy. Is this my respons. since the branches are mostly hanging in my yard?

  34. Very informative tips. Also, before making a cut, look for the branch collar, which grows from the stem tissue at the bottom base of the branch. Look for the branchy ridge, which is on the upper surface and is parallel to the branch angle at the stem. Always cut outside the branch bark ridge and angle your cut down and away from the stem. Take care not to injure the branch collar.


  35. Thanks for the article. When there is a possibility of damage to your home make sure to call a professional like they recommend.

  36. Thank you for sharing . After knowing I made the right mistake of not undercutting even a smaller branch and, yep,now I’m paying the price.

  37. I will never understand why people don’t take responsibility for their own trees whether in their yard or someone else’s. Why is it the neighbors job to pay a thousand dollars a tree for your overgrown tree? Trim it before it gets to growing over or thru someone else’s property!

  38. neighbor let an oak tree grow right on the property line it ate the fence and now the roots are eating my foundation…Im using what i learned here to kill everything on my side of the property line and more…TYSVM

  39. I have some thick(3-4″)branches growing straight up on my fruit trees, way to tall to harvest, or spray effectively. If I cut them, they are in the center of the trees, do I cut them flat, or at an angle in relation to the ground. If flat will water and snow sit on it and rot the tree?

    • Hi, Joe,
      Here’s “Today’s Homeowner” host Danny Lipford’s answer to your question:
      “Trim the limbs in the direction of the main part of the tree. Sealing the cut is not necessary; the tree should heal itself.”
      Thanks for your question.

  40. Thank you for the great information. I have a tree that looks like your second last picture where someone left the branches too long and now there are stubs that never properly healed. Is it too late at this point to properly cut the stubs back? Thank you for your assistance! Best Always, Marybeth

  41. Very good article! I’m sending a copy to my hometown public works & my brother. Both seem lacking in good technique.

  42. What about these palm tree groomers using spikes to climb up and down?
    Doe those spike marks and holes hurt the tree?

    • Hi, David!
      Our focus is on home improvement; palm tree groomers’ habits, and their impact, is outside our wheelhouse, so we’re opening this question to the community.
      Any ideas, y’all?

  43. My wife and I need our oak tree branches cut down since they are diseased. The trouble was, we just did NOT know how to do it. Thankfully, we found your site and now everything is right as rain. We’re off to trimmin’! Thanks a bunch.

    • Glad to hear you enjoyed this content! Please share it with friends — that’s how we’re able to create similar content.
      Thanks for reading, and happy trimming. 🙂

  44. Thanks for your expert advice which I’m sure has prevented injuries among DIY homeowners. One lesson I learned is never place your ladder below a limb that you are cutting, even if it appears very secure to the tree while making relief cuts. Thanks again!


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