How do you prune a maple tree

How and When to Prune Maple Trees

If you’re the proud owner of a maple tree, congrats on having such an amazing plant in your landscape! The brilliant foliage and fall color of various Acer species makes them true works of art!

However, what sets a maple tree apart from, say, a statue or painting, is that a growing maple is never quite finished.

Once you put down the chisel or paintbrush, the art you’ve created is generally complete and ready for display. But when an Acer goes into the ground, a gardener’s work is just beginning.

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Besides properly cultivating the maple tree and providing preventive care to keep it free of pests and disease, a gardener will need to prune an Acer as it grows and develops.

This promotes health and vigor, along with improved aesthetics – all of which keeps the plant looking and feeling majestic and vibrant!

Even though trimming is a pretty simple process, it may prove to be a bit more complex than it looks to beginners.

Anyone who just starts cutting away without the proper know-how could impair the health of their beloved tree. Luckily, learning the proper technique is easy, and we’re here to help.

In this guide we’ll provide a simple breakdown of maple pruning practices, without putting you to sleep along the way.

Not that what we’re covering here isn’t a captivating topic – when learning about a subject like Acer trimming, I’m left scratching my head, wondering how anyone could nod off. It’s practically the Adderall of horticulture topics!

Here’s everything we’ll cover up ahead:

What You’ll Learn

  • Why Prune a Maple Tree?
    • Aesthetics
    • Health
    • Vigor
  • What You’ll Need
  • When to Trim a Maple Tree
  • How to Prune

Why Prune a Maple Tree?

The prospect of intentionally causing injury to a plant can make any green thumb wince, especially when the plant in question is a gorgeous maple tree.

And since Acer species ooze sap from wounds more profusely than most other plants, pruning one really does feel like you’re making a living, breathing thing bleed.

So why would we ever do this on purpose? For a few reasons:


A tree must be free of broken, drooping, and otherwise damaged or weird-looking branches to look its best.

Beyond that, the growth habit of whatever species you’re cultivating may dictate when and how you opt to make your cuts.

For maples like A. rubrum that benefit from a bit of shaping to keep a tidy and manicured appearance, maintaining a strong central leader with branches at around 90-degree angles to the trunk is ornamentally essential.

Other species such as A. palmatum look better with a more natural trunk and branch structure.


Wounded branches and twigs are prime entry spots for pathogens and pests to enter plants. By addressing these vulnerable spots, infections and infestations are less likely to occur.

Cutting a maple tree back also thins it out a bit, increasing intra-tree airflow and helping to keep them sanitary and free of unwanted visitors like fungal pathogens.

In addition, thinning allows light to reach leaves that might be blocked from the sun’s rays in a crowded canopy. Plus, it strengthens the branches that you leave alone, which is pretty sweet.


As they grow, undesirable branches and twigs take up resources from the maple and the surrounding environment that could have otherwise been put to better use.

When you remove these freeloading plant structures, nutrients and energy won’t go to waste, and will go to other, more desirable shoots and structures instead.

Regular trimming also spurs new growth. The roots and shoots of a plant love to stay in balance, so when you remove shoots by pruning, the resources gathered by the now overpowered roots go towards shoot hyper-development.

What You’ll Need

There are a couple things you’ll need before you begin the project of cutting back these plants. If you’re an avid gardener or amateur arborist, chances are you have a lot of this stuff already. Beginners may need to buy or borrow a few necessary items.

Depending on the size of your specimen, you might need some vertical assistance such as a ladder in order to reach the highest branches. Be sure to work with a buddy for safety if this is the case!

Alternatively, it’s wise to consider hiring a professional arborist if the pruning needs of your Acer are beyond your reach.

Personal Protective Equipment

Safety is paramount, especially when sharp objects are involved.

Here’s a good place to start: safety glasses and work gloves. Safety glasses will keep sawdust, sticks, and sharp, pointy tools out of your eyeballs. A tough pair of work gloves will protect your hands from cuts and sticky sap.

Safety Glasses

If you’re looking for premium safety glasses, NoCry has some available on Amazon.

Puncture-Resistant Gloves

For a pair of heavy-duty puncture-resistant work gloves made with several layers of cut-resistant fabric to protect your hands, visit Garret Wade. These are available in blue or black, in three sizes.

Hand Pruners

These handheld tools are small enough to snip away twigs and small branches – perfect for small edits and finishing touches. Bypass pruners in particular will ensure the cleanest possible cuts, while also maintaining blade sharpness.

Hand Pruners

To purchase a set of carbon steel bypass pruners with a nonslip PVC grip, visit Gardener’s Supply.


With their tough, stout blades and leverage-manipulating handles, loppers are ideal for removing branches too large for hand pruners.

Bypass Loppers

A heavy-duty set of bypass loppers with telescopic handles can be purchased from Garrett Wade.

Pruning Saw

A pruning saw is best used on branches that are too large for loppers, as well as on any competing trunks or leaders that you need to saw away. It combines heavy-duty sawing capability with the compactness necessary for fitting into tight spaces.

Pruning Saw

A handheld pruning saw with a 12-inch blade and wooden holster sheath can be purchased from Garrett Wade.

Pole Saw

A pole saw is simply a saw blade on a long handle, which really extends your reach.

The handles of the longer models either collapse or disassemble into two or more sections, which makes the pole saw both lighter in weight and more convenient to store than pole saws with fixed-length handles.

Pole Saw

Find a pole saw with a 15-inch curved cutoff blade, 25 feet of total reach, and a handle that breaks down into three separate pieces at Garrett Wade.

Isopropyl Alcohol

When cutting various shoots off of different plants, it’s really important to sterilize your tools in between cuts so any pathogens present don’t hitch a ride to new hosts. 

A solution of water and isopropyl alcohol will get the job done – just make sure the alcohol is at least 70 percent of the mixture, with water making up the rest.

Isopropyl Alcohol

A fringe benefit of isopropyl alcohol is that it’ll help to de-sap your blades. Anyone who’s tried to open and close a pair of gummed-up pruners or loppers knows how helpful this is!

A bottle of 99 percent isopropyl alcohol is available from Solimo via Amazon.

When to Trim a Maple Tree

Diseased, broken, or decaying branches can be cut back whenever you happen to notice them. But keep the more involved sessions of shaping or thinning healthy green growth to once a year.

For the most part, deciding when to schedule your primary pruning sessions is a layup.

Trimming before that first flush of growth appears in spring will result in the most vigorous growth for most types of trees, so planning to do your work in late winter or early spring is a pretty good prescription… most of the time.

Maples, on the other hand, may require some more careful consideration.

Since they bleed so much sap from wounds, maple trees are a pretty notable exception. Because sap is so nutritious and life-giving to an Acer, cutting at standard pruning times could cause the tree to lose a lot of sap.

This sap loss may or may not be harmful, depending on the size and age of the tree. Sometimes sap loss is no big deal, while it can affect a maple’s health and vitality at other times.

Here’s a good rule of thumb to decide how to proceed: the greater a maple’s size and age, the better it can handle sap loss, and vice versa.

If your specimen is large and old, then you’re probably safe to trim during the traditional timeframe. But if your tree is small, young, or may be prone to excessive sap loss for some other reason, then hold off on pruning until summertime.

At this point in the year, growth has slowed and wounds won’t ooze as much sap, but it’s still early enough to avoid the wet, cold, and disease-promoting conditions of fall and winter.

How to Prune

We’ve laid out the motivations, the tools, and the timing behind this process. Let’s cover the actual pruning part now.

Here’s a helpful checklist to understand what you should prune, in order from greatest to least importance:

  • Take off dead, sick, or injured branches right away, as soon as you see them.
  • If choosing a central leader is applicable in young, poorly tended, or damaged trees, choose the strongest, most centered, and most vertical leader to keep, and prune away competing branches as needed.
  • If two branches are crossing or rubbing together, this will eventually result in bark damage and injury. Choose the one with the branch-to-trunk angle that’s closest to 90 degrees, and cut away the loser.
  • Remove low-growing branches so that the trunk below the canopy is emphasized, and encouraged to grow straight and strong.
  • If a branch droops, points sharply upwards, or is otherwise nowhere close to a 90 degree angle from the trunk, prune it.
  • If any branches are growing faster than the rest of the maple, cut them back to the length of the adjacent branches.

Pruning cuts should be made parallel to the trunk, and the cut stumps should just barely protrude from beyond the branch collar without cutting into it to avoid damage.

Non-parallel cutting angles allow for water to collect on the wound, which could result in disease.

If any branches that you wish to cut back are rather heavy, utilize the three-cut method by first making a cut one to two feet out from the trunk halfway up into the branch.

Next, make a complete cut a couple inches further out from the trunk. Finally, make the last cut slightly beyond the branch collar.

The three-cut method is great because the pruned branch won’t take a strip of bark or “heel” with it when it falls. If you need a vivid analogy, this is like when you aggressively pick at a hangnail and pull away a LOT more skin than you intended to.

The three-cut method, illustrated. Photo by Joe Butler.

Other than one-off pruning sessions of sick, dead, or damaged branches, all of the branches and twigs removed from the tree in one go should make up no more than a third of the plant’s total aboveground growth.

Any more, and the physical stress may prove excessive.

Prune from the top down, so you can pace yourself and avoid removing the maximum recommended growth prematurely.

This is basically a trick that forces you to regularly take a step back from the tree and look over your work to see if you’re rationing out your “pruning bucks” correctly.

Pruning from the bottom up, on the other hand, makes it all too easy to remove a third of the tree’s growth before you’ve even made it halfway up the trunk.

Aaaaaand Cut!

That’s a wrap on this guide, and it’s also a call to action: go prune your maple trees, people! As long as it’s the proper time, that is.

Pruning an Acer is quite empowering, especially if you’re used to leaving your landscape trees be and letting them do their own thing.

By maintaining a maple in this way, you take an active role in caring for and improving the tree’s appearance and well-being, which is pretty neat.

Questions or comments about any part of this guide can go in the comments section below. Others can really learn and benefit from what you have to say, so don’t be shy!

And for more information about growing maple trees in your landscape, check out these guides next:

  • How to Grow and Care for Red Maple Trees
  • How to Grow and Care for Sugar Maple Trees
  • How to Grow Japanese Maple Trees

Pruning young sugar maple trees

Young sugar maple trees

Pruning when the tree is still young is essential for the development of a healthy sugar maple with well-spaced and sturdy permanent branches that grow out of a strong, single leader, the trunk. Proper pruning alters the form and growth of a tree. Many problems can be corrected or prevented by pruning during the formative years of a sugar maple.


The preferred time to prune young sugar maples is between mid-July and early August when sap levels under the bark are lowest. The cuts heal much quicker when made at this time with less risk of fungal infections. Some re-directed growth will occur within the remaining branches when pruning is done while sugar maples are actively growing.

Corrective pruning should be attempted on established trees within 3 to 5 years after planting.

The Right Tools

  • hand bypass pruning shears

    Smaller cuts on branches 1/2 to 3/4 inch diameter can be made using hand pruners (secateurs). Bypass pruners cut like scissors, leaving a close clean, cut on the tree. The cutting action of anvil pruners is one sharp blade cutting against a flat surface blade. This type of action tends to crush tissue on the underside of the stem where the cut is made, opening up plant tissue to infection. Bypass shears are recommended.

hand pruning saw

lopping shears

  • Cuts larger than 3/4 inch in diameter should be made with bypass lopping shears or a pruning saw.
  • Use a pole saw for branches higher up in the tree, if necessary.
  • Do not use hedge shears to prune your trees.



  • When to Prune Trees – Credit: Click to enlarge

    Begin pruning by removing any dead, damaged or weak branches first. Make the pruning cuts about 1/4 inch beyond the branch collar – the raised area that forms where a branch joins with a larger branch or the main stem (trunk). Do not leave any branch stubs.

  • Look at the top of the tree and identify the branch that will be the leader for the trunk. If there are co-dominant leaders, select the strongest, straightest of the group to be the leader and either reduce the competing branches by 1/3 their length or completely remove them (if doing so does not remove an excessive amount of leaves). Do not prune the leader.
  • Reduce (shorten) all branches greater than 1/2 the trunk diameter, if any are present.
  • Remove branches that grow toward the center of the tree’s crown or downward in any fashion.

Pruning techniques – Credit: Click to enlarge

  • Remove the smaller of any branches that rub against one another. This reduces the possibility of injury to the tree during windy conditions and fungal infection of exposed tissue.
  • Remove branches with extremely narrow, weak crotch angles early in the trees development.
  • As young maples grow, gradually remove the lower branches to raise the crown, and remove some of the branches that are too closely spaced on the trunk.
  • Do not remove more than 25 – 30 % of the live foliage in the crown, in any one year.
  • Remove any suckers that may be present at the base of the tree.
  • Do not apply tree paint or wound dressing to the cuts. Studies have shown that these products hinders the maple’s natural healing process.


Prune a young sugar maple only enough to effectively direct its growth and to correct any structural weakness it may exhibit. Depending on how big your tree really is, you may have to consider getting professional help for some of the pruning that may be required.

Carl Mansfield, Tree Consultant, Maple Leaves Forever

How to prune a maple tree so that it grows beautiful


  • Rules for growing maple on the site
  • How to prune maple

Many people think that if you plant a maple tree, it will start growing by itself, but this is not so. In order for a tree to grow beautiful and grow properly, it is necessary not only to take care of it, but also to follow special rules.

Rules for growing maple on the site

Maple is a beautiful and bright tree, in order for it to grow beautiful and transform into beautiful bright colors, you should know the characteristics of this plant.

Maple grows well in the shade, as the sun's rays take away its wonderful and natural color. Also, the tree does not tolerate a large amount of moisture and loves good soil. Therefore, before planting such plants, you should familiarize yourself with their preferences and take planting very seriously.

So that the tree grows well, a lot of humus, sod, a little sand, and a small amount of acidity are added to the soil. As we already know that maple does not like moisture, but on hot summer days it needs water, and there should be plenty of it. Try to water it at least once a week, if possible, water more often. When the soil lacks water, the tree begins to grow poorly, so use ten to twenty liters of water per tree.

The soil should be dug from time to time to medium depth and weeds must be removed. In the summer, when you cultivate the soil, add kemira to it, and in the spring, fertilize the plant with urea, superphosphate and potassium salts. And about once a year, in spring, it is desirable to mulch the earth with peat.

How to prune maple

Pruning maple is a very important procedure. Many argue that tree pruning is carried out so that the plant does not grow anymore, but there are other reasons for this. The tree is also pruned so that the branches, in strong winds and bad weather, do not rub against each other and thus do not destroy the leaves. Also, such a procedure is necessary in order to remove dry and diseased branches.

Basically shorten the top of the tree and trim the branches. At the same time, you need to know that only bad branches, still undeveloped and dry, are cut. This method will help to grow new young and healthy branches.

There are three ways of pruning:

  • Forming method, this is when the appearance of the crown and the nature of the growth of branches are formed during pruning;
  • The second type is sanitary pruning. With this method, bad, diseased and dry branches are removed;
  • Rejuvenating pruning. With this method, we restore old branches and allow new ones to grow.

It is important that maple pruning takes place from September to December. Since the tree begins to bloom and secrete sap in spring, it does not respond well to pruning. Therefore, if such a process is not necessary, it is better not to do it. Exceptions may be in cases where you urgently need to form a crown and thin out branches. But in any case, this is rarely needed.

In order to trim the maple, use special scissors and cut the plant at a slight angle. Such a slight slope is needed so that the juice that will be released during circumcision does not accumulate and if it suddenly rains, the water does not stagnate on the branches. If this is not done, various diseases may appear on the tree and the branches may begin to rot.

The distance between the cut and the bud must be two millimeters. If everything is done correctly, the branch will have a finished appearance, at the end without a hemp, and the lower kidney will not dry out in extreme heat and will not die in severe frost. Another important point is that in time maple pruning removes thirty-five percent of last year's growth.

It is important to follow all the pruning rules and then the maple will grow into a beautiful, very beautiful plant.

Tears of spring.

When to prune maple? | Garden | Dacha

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes


AIF at Dacha No. 6. Early potatoes: 3 steps to success 03/23/2016

We have a silver maple at our dacha. My dad planted it 12 years ago to celebrate the birth of his first grandson. The tree quickly grew and began to cause inconvenience: the lower branches interfered with the passage. We decided to trim them, planning it for March.

As I cut down one of the large branches, I saw, to my horror, that the tree was “bleeding”. It turns out that the sap flow of maples is very strong and starts early. The tree "wept" for almost a month, and I was very worried that I had ruined it. Fortunately, everything ended well, but a few branches continued to interfere. The following year, we started pruning on February 23rd. And everything happened again! As a result, we came to the conclusion that it is necessary to file the maple in January, which we did this year. The “operation” was finally successful, and the tree did not lose a drop of juice. So I advise other summer residents who are going to do maple pruning, do not plan it for the spring - after all, this can kill the tree.

Ekaterina Simonova, Tula

Comments Irina Bondorina, Doctor of Biological Sciences :

– The risk that the tree will “cry” again in spring remains. After all, in winter, during the dormant period, healing processes do not go on, and the wound, most likely, will not have time to heal before the start of sap flow. I usually prune maples in late summer or autumn.

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