DIY: How to Prune Small Trees and Shrubs

Smart pruning when trees are small helps them grow to be strong and healthy.

During a hot Texas summer several years ago, I worked at a summer camp. My job description as a camp staff member was garbage truck driver, dish washer, concessions stand cashier, and among other things, resident tree trimmer.

My friend Melissa and I spent weeks that summer wielding our pole saws over our shoulders to prune all the trees on the camp’s acreage. We were two college girls in matching t-shirts with no prior tree-trimming experience. You know what? It’s not that hard.

When I look at houses to buy one of the first things that comes to mind before I do any mental decorating or interior renovating is what can I do to improve the landscape? I picture myself removing low tree limbs to raise the canopy so that it frames the house and pruning overgrown hedges that block the windows.

Pruning is one of those things you can do for free to give remarkable results to your landscape, instantly improving the house’s curb appeal. It’s better to do it sooner than later. I’m not climbing up any ladders with a chain saw; I leave that to a professional, but I can prune small trees and shrubs with my feet planted safely on the ground.

To gain your tree-trimming skills and confidence, use the small tree and shrub pruning guides at This Old House.

Source: This Old House

I also like to watch the videos of Roger Cook demonstrating the cuts to give shrubs new life. Watching episodes of This Old House always makes it feel like Saturday morning to me.

Did you ever work at a summer camp? What kinds of crazy jobs did you find yourself doing?
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. And just when I thought I knew everytying about prunning! Wow that was super helpful info. Thanks!
    Katie @ Imperfect People´s last post…Top posts for the month of June

  2. Hi Rachel,

    It’s amazing what a difference pruning can make to a house. When we bought our house two years ago, there were these absolutely enormous hedges covering the entire front of the house. I don’t think they had been pruned in more than a decade.

    We ended up taking those enormous hedges out, and replacing them with small little boxwoods and beds of flowers. What a difference! The living room is now flooded with light.

    Keep an open mind while house hunting, and remember (as you have been) that small changes can lead to enormous differences. If you saw before and after pictures of our house, you would be shocked. Some of the biggest changes we made cost the least!

    Have a happy 4th!
    Nihara´s last post…The Jenga Approach to Living

  3. I haven’t ever pruned anything myself, but I’m always amazed at how much better our yard looks after my husband trims everything up. Amen!
    Kristen@PrettySweet´s last post…July 1: You, Too, Miiight Be Able to Grow a Pineapple

  4. I didn’t work at a summer camp per se, but I did do housing for summer conferences at my University. The weirdest job I had there was waiting all night outside one of the rooms with the scared teenage girls protecting them from the creepy maintenance guy who came to fix their exploding toilet. Not sure that would lend itself to a how-to guide as easily as yours though. :)
    Jennie´s last post…Making the Right Decisions for Right Now

  5. I worked at several different summer camps throughout high school and college. No tree trimming was involved, but I do remember building forts out of downed branches, lots of water fights, and teaching girls not to fling the burning s’mores off their sticks!

    Thanks for the post on tree trimming – so timely, as it’s a yard work weekend here.
    Rachel´s last post…June Jam – Music and Strawberries

  6. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who likes This Old House – it’s a Saturday morning favorite around here!
    Amy´s last post…Art in the everyday

  7. Camp cook, hole digger, trash collector, food server, gift-shop cashier, mower, and on days when they couldn’t find anyone else to help, I was even known to head to the ropes course/lake to harness people up for rock climbing/repelling/zipline. Those were the days…I don’t want to relive. ;-) Oh yes, I did three summers at a Christian camp in the mountains of E. TN and I learned a lot.

    Re: tree trimming – great ideas and I’m totally going to go check out what all This Old House has to say about the subject. I love their magazines!
    Carrie´s last post…Thankful For :: 451 – 460

  8. Any recommendations on the best time to prune? My mom and dad were disagreeing over that now that they actually have a few fruit trees to prune…

    And you gotta love odd camp jobs. I think my most memorable was getting to clean up barf from a girl who had taken a dare and drank a full cup of Ranch dressing…not pretty!
    Kait Palmer´s last post…Week 36, Birth Centers and Water Births

    • Odd camp jobs indeed! Kait, my experience was similar to yours- I worked at a local aquatic center and one of my jobs was to make sure the locker rooms were kept clean. Well, one day a little girl came up to me and told me that she had just barfed in the shower. She then proceeded to run away, leaving me to clean a shower floor full of macaroni noodles and hot dog pieces. Yuck!!!

  9. Hahaha… have I ever worked at a summer camp? I STILL work at a summer camp! Year-round staff for the win.
    Lauren´s last post…34. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

  10. That was a super helpful diagram! I can totally see at a glance what to do. Your post was timely, we were just pruning the crabapple in our front yard today. It’s got an awful habit from decades of neglect (not ours!), but we’re doing what we can to make it healthy and pretty again.
    Stephanie´s last post…Bake It Hot, Eat It Cold

  11. Kariann says:

    I didn’t go to or work at any summer camps, but I am a “new” believer in pruning. It’s hard to chop away at something that appears to be doing just fine, but it’s the right thing to do. Have faith. Your bush or tree will be better for it. If you commit to native plants in your yard/garden, most will survive pruning at any time of year. Take care of them after (good waterings, etc.) and they’ll pay you back.

    I love your blog, and I love that you include some gardening tips here-and-there. Seeing the fruits of our labor is very rewarding and motivating. It’s wonderful to see in our children and in our wildlife.


  12. Hey, thanks for the reminder! I was planning to drastically work in my garden tomorrow. I have a small garden at the front of my home and it’s a mess! Weeds are growing so quickly :S
    Maaike Quinn @ Life with FlyLady´s last post…Your House is Never Going to Be Perfectly Clean

  13. Pruning is the natural equivalent of clutter-busting, yes? Removing what is non-essential in order to let in more light, new vistas, create more space and balance and possibility, and hopefully better health for the tree or shrub!

  14. Natalie says:

    Yikes! As the wife of a Certified Arborist I have to admit your post makes me cringe a bit. While some homeowners do a good job pruning their own trees, I can say honestly that 95% of the time the butcher them. What most people consider proper pruning is anything but – bad, bad pruning abounds to the point that people think it’s what’s normal. So please, if you do it yourself, do the research as suggested – otherwise you will eventually kill your tree. If there is any doubt and you love your tree – look for a Certified Arborist to do it (tree services are a good place to start). It can be very cost effective.

  15. I worked at a camp in Colorado for a summer as one of the horse wranglers. It was awesome! Also did several summers at various Young Life camps- dining hall, horses, counselor, and whatever else they needed.

    As far as pruning, I just set out to prune a few branches off our overgrown hedges last week and ended up hacking the whole thing down several feet! It makes our yard so much bigger- the dang hedge was encroaching a ton. It was about 30 minutes of hard work that yields a really great result.
    Katherine´s last post…July Already?

  16. I worked at a YMCA camp in Houston as a counselor and was blessed with such tasks as building a pole barn,emptying a grease trap by hand,wrangling horses and children with archery equipment

  17. Lifeguard, counselor, canoeing instructor. Ah- those were the days!
    gh´s last post…Piano recital

  18. We always pruned in the fall after at least one good hard freeze. That way the tree doesn’t bleed out and get sick. Everyone always wants to do yard work in spring and summer, but fall in the best time for garden planning and tree trimming.

  19. Stefanie says:

    Camp dishwasher/cook/server…burn scar on my arm to always remind me of those days.

    The first time I pruned a plant, I was secretly hoping to kill it. It was a creeping vine houseplant of some kind. It just seemed to rejuvenate it, though! Since then, I regularly prune all kinds of shrubs, plants, flowering bushes, even some small branches from our large trees. My husband recently took the chainsaw to a “snowball bush”. It was blocking our view down our country lane. It will be interesting to see what comes back. :)

  20. I actually do not know much about pruning, so this was sure helpful.

    How is life adjusting after coming back from Italy? Are you and kids are missing it or happy to be back home? Curious.

    Zengirl @ Heart and Mind´s last post…No Spend Month Challenge: July 2011- Update 1

  21. Great timing on this post. One of our ornamental trees in our front landscaping was being a bit ornery, so I gave it a good trim this weekend. Much better now!