Difference Between Pruning and Trimming

side by side image of pruning and trimming

Healthy, tall trees and full shrubs are a great addition to your landscape, but they need your help to grow to maturity and thrive. Pruning and trimming are critical to keep them in excellent condition, but the practices are often mistaken to be the same. However, you must know the differences between pruning and trimming to care for your trees and shrubs properly.

How are pruning and trimming different?

Trimming and pruning are often used interchangeably in gardening and tree care. Both techniques involve removing branches or stems from plants, trees, or shrubs, but they are very different methods that serve vastly different purposes. 

  • Pruning is a deliberate practice that enhances plant health and structure. 
  • Trimming is primarily cosmetic and focuses strongly on maintaining the appearance or size of the plant.

To think about it another way, pruning is similar to going to the salon or barber for a drastically different hairstyle or look, and trimming is when you go in to freshen up your current style with just a basic trim.

Pruning and trimming are essential parts of plant care and can be used alone or in combination.

What is pruning?

A person pruning the branches of tree
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Purpose: Pruning is primarily done to promote long-term health and structural integrity. It involves selectively removing branches to encourage new growth, eliminate damaged or diseased branches, and improve airflow through the center of the plant.

Technique: Pruning typically involves strategic, precise cuts. It may sometimes include removing entire branches, thinning out crowded areas, or shaping the plant to improve its structure.

Timing: Pruning is usually done when the plant isn’t actively growing. Pruning in the dormant season minimizes plant stress and reduces disease transmission risk. However, specific types of pruning, like deadheading, can be done when the plant is actively growing. 

What is trimming?

A person trimming a lawn
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Purpose: Trimming is primarily used to maintain a plant’s shape and appearance. It involves cutting back overgrowth or out-of-control branches to make the tree or shrub look nice and manicured or keep its size in check.

Technique: Trimming typically involves shortening the ends of branches or lightly clipping them with pruning shears or hedge trimmers. It also can include removing dead or damaged foliage to improve the plant’s overall appearance.

Timing: Trimming is usually done during the growing season to encourage bushier growth, but it can be done at any time of the year, depending on the specific plant and its growth habit.

Benefits of tree pruning and trimming? 

Both pruning and tree trimming have benefits, which is why they’re so crucial to tree maintenance. However, the benefits do have some key differences. 

Tree pruning is mainly beneficial for a tree’s health. Pruning promotes strong, healthy growth and protects it from diseases, infections, and insect pests. It also can help fix structural problems or undesirable growth patterns, maximize flowering and fruit production, and rejuvenate older, mature trees. 

Tree trimming is mainly beneficial for aesthetic purposes, enhancing the beauty of your trees and shrubs. 

Pruning and trimming frequency

Once established, it is generally recommended that trees and shrubs be pruned once a year. When you head outside to tackle the project depends on the type of tree you’re working with and its blooming cycle if you’re dealing with flowering trees.

  • If your tree or shrub doesn’t flower or produce fruit, you want to prune it during the dormant season, typically in late fall or early spring.
  • If your tree or shrub is spring-flowering and puts out blooms before June 1, prune it immediately after flowering. In many cases, this is typically mid-summer. 
  • If your shrub or tree is summer-flowering blooms after June 1, prune it in late winter or early spring. You want to prune before it breaks winter dormancy and new flower buds develop. 

The frequency of trimming varies. Some recommendations say to trim twice a year, some yearly, and others only when needed. I fall squarely into the “trim only when needed” camp. I watch my trees and shrubs and give them a touchup when they start getting out of shape or growing too tall for the space.

Tree pruning methods

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You can follow many different techniques and make many different pruning cuts for your trees, ranging from quite simple to more specialized. However, pruning comes down to three basic methods: canopy thinning, raising, and cleaning.

Note: For more information on pruning in general, head over to the Lawn Love article: what is pruning?

Canopy thinning

Thinning is typically done on established or mature trees to open up the canopy or the middle of the tree, where all the branches and leaves are the thickest. Specific branches are removed to reduce the overall density of the tree, increasing sunlight penetration and air circulation through the canopy. Canopy thinning also helps minimize problems caused by wind, ice, and snow.

Canopy raising

Raising removes lower branches to raise the bottom limbs and leaves over time. It needs to be done over a long period but is usually utilized when more space is required for traffic or to get an unobstructed view. 

Canopy cleaning

Cleaning is going through the canopy and removing broken, diseased, or damaged branches. It helps strengthen a tree’s overall health, like building up our immune system, and prevent future damage. Canopy cleaning can be performed at any time during the year, whether the tree is actively growing.

Tree trimming methods

On the other hand, tree trimming doesn’t have specific methods like pruning. You aim to go in and fix the shape to keep the tree or shrub balanced and well-maintained. Sometimes, it may warrant clipping the ends of overgrown branches or clipping out wayward stragglers.

Commonly used tools

A quick walk down the aisle at Home Depot or Lowe’s, and you’ll think you need an arsenal of hand tools to take care of your trees and shrubs. Thankfully, though, you don’t need specialized cutting tools. You only need a couple of tools to be successful. 

Pro tip: Regardless of the type of tool you’re using, always make sure it’s clean and the cutting surface is sharp. Wear appropriate safety gear (I will highly recommend some sort of eye protection) and always work carefully. 

For more information on must-have tools, check out our guide on what equipment you need for pruning bushes, trees, and plants.

Pruners

You need a good pair of pruners for both pruning and trimming. Sometimes called pruning shears, they are designed to cut small-diameter branches and twigs up to an inch and a half in diameter. They’re available in right- and left-handed models and two different types: scissor and anvil pruners. 

  • Scissor pruners, sometimes called bypass pruners, have two cutting blades, like scissors, that cut when passing one another.
  • Anvil-type pruners have a cutting blade and a solid metal anvil. They cut when you squeeze the handle, causing the blade to strike the anvil.

Lopping shears

Loppers are designed for bigger branches than pruners and are more commonly used when pruning, but they can be helpful when trimming. They have long handles that provide leverage to cut through thick branches greater than 1.75 inches in diameter. 

Like pruning shears, they come in bypass and anvil types.

Garden shears

gardener trimming bushes with hedge shears
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Garden shears — sometimes called hedge shears — look like giant scissors. You use your arms to cut things instead of your fingers or hands. The long blades are used to trim hedges and shrubs or sometimes decorative grasses that grow in clumps and periodically need shaping. They aren’t generally used for pruning.

The long, straight blades allow for an even cut to create symmetrical shapes when trimming. The long handles also let you reach higher and give you more leverage, allowing you to clip thicker branches than pruning shears. 

For fine, detailed work, you can opt for the miniature version, which are called hand shears.

Pruning saws

pruning saw used on a small tree limb
Pixabay

Pruning saws remove branches and tree limbers bigger than 2 or 3 inches in diameter. They come in various sizes and types, including straight or curved blades and pole saws that extend your reach and keep your feet safely on the ground.

Pro Tip: Chainsaws are technically a type of pruning saw and are extremely helpful for removing large branches or limbs. If you use a chainsaw, always exercise caution and follow safety guidelines. 

Should you hire a professional tree service?

Proper pruning or trimming a tree is both an art and a science, especially if you’re doing significant pruning work to change the tree’s structure or deal with a disease or insect infestation. 

If the pruning and trimming aren’t done correctly, you can put the tree or shrub at risk for health problems and unwanted growth. Incorrectly cut tree branches or limbs can make the tree susceptible to unwanted disease problems, or worse, it can stop flowering or growth entirely if not done correctly. 

Also, pruning or trimming is dangerous, especially if you’re on a ladder working high in the canopy. 

There’s nothing wrong with turning pruning over to a professional tree trimming service.

If you’re compelled to take on the project yourself, ensure you know the steps you need to take and all safety precautions. Always work slowly and methodically, stepping back often to get a better view of the “big picture.”

FAQs about pruning and trimming

Is pruning or trimming trees necessary?

Pruning and trimming are necessary for maintaining attractive, healthy trees and shrubs. While these jobs are likely some of the most daunting, complicated parts of tree and shrub maintenance, they’re essential to keeping everything healthy and attractive. 

Can you prune and trim trees at the same time?

No, you shouldn’t prune and trim trees simultaneously, even if the tree desperately needs some aesthetic work (i.e., trimming) and problematic branches removed (i.e., pruning). Pruning and trimming simultaneously puts too much stress on the tree. If you need to do both, it’s best to prune first and then, if possible, wait until later in the growing season or even the following year to trim. 

Should I use pruning sealer?

No, do you not use pruning sealer when pruning trees or shrubs. These products are marketed as helpful but trap moisture inside the wound, leading to problems. Let the tree heal the wound naturally.

Looking for pruning or trimming help?

Tree care can be daunting for some property owners, and rightfully so. The health and appearance of your trees are at stake, and working with cutting tools and climbing ladders can be dangerous. If you’d rather not take on this DIY task or you’re dealing with branches growing into overhead power lines, it’s best to hand the pruners and saws over to someone more experienced. 
Contact Lawn Love, and we’ll connect you with a local, experienced landscaper or tree service. You can stand safely on the ground and allow a professional to prune your trees and shrubs.

Main Image Credits:
Pruning: nelic | Canva Pro | License
Trimming: welcomia | Canva Pro | License with Text Overlay using Canva Pro

Amanda Shiffler

Most comfortable with soil under her fingernails, Amanda has an enthusiasm for gardening, agriculture, and all things plant-related. With a master's degree in agriculture and more than a decade of experience gardening and tending to her lawn, she combines her plant knowledge and knack for writing to share what she knows and loves.