My neighbor asked me recently about her two six-year old Kwanzan flowering cherry trees. The trees are in the front yard and had never been pruned. The Kwanzans were so neglected and out of control that you couldn’t see the front of my neighbor’s house from across the street! I agreed to prune them for her. Such a large task is not so complex if you do it at the right time and the proper way. Here’s how:
The first rule of green thumb when it comes to pruning a spring flowering tree or shrub is prune it in late spring or early summer, after the blooms have faded. Spring flowering trees, like cherries, generally bloom on branches grown the previous year. If you prune a flowering cherry in the winter, you’ll remove potential blooming limbs, and get fewer flowers in the spring.
If your cherry tree has been neglected and is quite overgrown, however, blooms are not what you’re worried about. If you’re planning to remove a lot of large limbs, its best to do so in the winter, while the tree is still dormant. You’ll better be able to see the what you’re doing without the leaves, and you’ll minimize stress to the tree. The cherry will still bloom in spring, just not as much. Plus, you’ll improve the overall health of the tree and see greater bloom production in years to come.
Get the big stuff out of the way.
Take a good, hard look at the cherry tree and determine where the main problem branches are. A healthy flowering cherry tree should have just one main trunk. Large limbs or secondary leaders growing from the base of the trunk could eventually split and fall. Such limbs or those crowding the middle of the tree should be removed first. Don’t be alarmed to make big cuts. Big cuts first mean fewer small cuts later. The largest limbs may require a chainsaw. If you’re unfamiliar with chainsaw use, ask a friend who is for help. You may want to hire a professional arborist. At any rate, make sure the chainsaw work is safe and proper. Cut large branches in sections moving from the outer ends first and work toward the base. This will keep both you and the tree safe.
Decide how you want the tree to look.
A flowering cherry shows it’s shape and structure best and is strongest when open in the middle, with 5 to 6 main limbs growing outward from the trunk. Take a good look and mark the mid-sized limbs you want to remove with ribbon. Remember, if your flowering cherry is really overgrown, you’ll need to remove several large limbs to get it under control. Look for branches that are growing inward and crowding the center of the tree. You may have to get a step ladder, or climb a bit to reach some key sections of your cherry. Get rid of lower limbs, and those growing downward or in the direction of a larger, more desirable branch. Also, mark any limbs that may have potential to break in the future. A limb stemming from a main branch at a 45 to 90 degree angle is actually less likely to break than one growing at a narrower angle. Such limbs have stronger cell tissue at their collars.
Cut ’em out.
You’ll need a pruning saw for your next cuts. Carefully remove the larger limbs you’ve marked using the 3-cut method to prevent tearing the bark and damaging the trunk or branch you want to keep. Make your first cut on the underside of the limb 6 to 8 inches away from the branch collar. Cut one-half to two-thirds through the branch diameter. Next, make a second cut about 6 inches toward the end of the limb from the first cut. Saw all the way through. Medium to large branches will break between the two cuts, preventing damage to the bark. Finally, remove the remaining stump by sawing it off 1 to 2 inches from the collar, and as parallel to the collar as possible. Continue until you’ve removed all of the limbs you’ve marked.
Clean it up.
If you’re happy with the shape of your tree, get out your bypass pruning shears and begin removing the smaller branches that make the flowering cherry look messy. Rid the cherry of any small twigs growing below where you’ve removed larger ones. Also, prune back any smaller branches growing inward or downward. Do this throughout the tree up to a reasonable height.
Wait for summer.
When finished, your flowering cherry should show off a few main lower branches and be fairly open in the middle. There will be plenty of room for new branches to emerge and bask in the sun. Your tree will have less weight to support and grow stronger overall. Watch it bloom come spring, and grow through the summer. The next time you prune should be after the flowers fade, but you’ll have much less work to do!