Trimming Small Trees 101

Kenneth Wilson

Although trimming your small trees and shrubs can be a scary, daunting task, the payoff is much greater  than the perceived risk. Most likely due to past experiences, trimming is seen as a risky endeavor that  can easily kill trees. However, with the right tools and knowledge, trimming your small trees will be an  easy task that will allow them to flourish. 

Your ultimate guide to the whys and how’s of trimming, oftentimes called pruning, for small trees like the Bonsai or money tree.

The Importance of Trimming


There are many reasons why trimming is important. For example, as explained later in the article, trimming a Bonsai or money tree is useful for controlling their shape and obtaining a desired look.

Another reason why trimming can be purposeful is to control the size of a tree or to encourage a strong framework. If the tree is growing thinly, trimming will help it to support itself and build a strong base to  support many more years of growth to come.

Also, your plant could simply be begging for a trim by having slowed growth or no growth at all. A trim will encourage fresh branches. Trimming can also save your plant in a time of crisis, for example, if your tree is insect infested, damaged, or diseased.  

For all the reasons listed above and more, it is important to learn how to properly trim a small tree and  keep up this routine maintenance to ensure optimal health.   


What to Trim and Not to Trim


To get the best result from trimming, it is important to know what you can and cannot trim.  


You can trim:  


  •  Dead, diseased, insect infested branches
  • “Suckers” which are small stems that grow up from the base of the main tree
  • Crowded or impacted branches
  • Heavy, sagging branches
  • Any branches that try to take over the main trunk
  • “Watersprouts” which are spindly, weak branches that often point straight up and originate from  a large branch

Don’t trim:


  • The central, healthy trunk (this is sometimes called topping) 
  • Too much at once, pruning should be done in a routinely manner. Don’t remove more than 25%  at one time
  • Too close to the branch collar
  • Too far away from where the branch originates, leaving a stub

When is the Best Time to Trim 


Be sure to research the best time to trim your specific small tree. However, generally a good rule of  thumb if you’re looking to remove healthy branches is to only remove them in the middle of winter  when the tree is dormant or in the spring when the tree is growing rapidly.  

Generally, the best time to trim is late winter and early spring. This is the best time because the plant  can easily heal from any cuts made. However, for diseased or infected branches, it is sometimes best to  remove these as soon as possible to prevent spread.  


Basic Steps to Trimming A Small Tree


Step 1

Take a clean pair of shears, the best tool being pruning shears. However, anything sharp like scissors will  do.

Step 2

Make sure that the blades are disinfected using isopropyl alcohol to prevent infection once you  make your cuts.

Step 3

Choose the best branches you would like to remove using the guidelines listed above.

Step 4

Then, make a clean snip as close as you can to where the branch begins. However, be sure not to cut too close to the main trunk as damaging the bark here can lead to big issues.

You will not want to leave a  stub of a branch sticking out, but you’ll also not want to cut the branch collar. The branch collar is the  “shoulder” of the branch.  

Here are some trimming cuts to avoid:  


1. Flush cuts

Are those that remove the branch collar or “shoulder” which results in the area not being able to seal over and heal the area after a cut is made. 


2. Stub Cuts 

Leave it just that- a stub. This is when you cut too far away from where the branch originates. The goal is to cut just short enough that there isn’t any stub left, but the collar also  isn’t damaged. 


Heading cuts 

take off the head of a branch, usually the very end but these cuts could also be  done anywhere. This makes it easy for the tree to become diseased and usually stimulates smaller branches to sprout out the end.  


How to Trim Money Trees (Guiana Chestnut)


Money trees can get big! They can grow to be over 15 feet tall indoors or even taller depending on their  environment. They’re also known for having a main, thicker trunk and a canopy of foliage.

To maintain  this distinctive look, trimming is necessary! They can also become spindly as they become larger. If you’d  like your money tree to stay bushy or to encourage new growth, you can cut it.  

Money trees usually have a braided main trunk. So, to keep this shape as it grows, cut away any new  smaller growth at the base of the plant to ensure that all the energy is going where it should! 

Don’t  worry too much about where you cut the money tree as long as you’re not cutting the main trunk.  Anywhere you cut on the top leaves will result in the plant branching and growing further. It is recommended to cut ½ an inch above from where a top branch forms a V shape as other branches grow off it.  

How to Trim Bonsai Trees


Trimming is essential to keeping Bonsai trees alive, healthy, and in your desired miniature tree shape. It  is important to trim to keep the leaves small and proportionate to the tree, and to encourage a strong,  thicker trunk. 

For deciduous trees, the best time to trim is in the summertime and winter when the growing energy is high and stored. Don’t trim in spring or autumn. For evergreens, the best time is in the fall as this is  when the most energy is stored.  

If you’re serious about Bonsai trees, it can be great to invest in a pair of Bonsai pruning scissors. Or, if it  is a thicker branch, choose stronger pruning shears.  

Before cutting, plan where you want to trim. Make your cuts between the nodes, which is the area  between the leaves. A good rule is to leave at least 2 leaves on the branch you cut. This way, your tree  will not look too barren, and the plant will be able to recover quickly.  

A good way to fatten up the trunk of your bonsai is to leave the lower branches to grow while trimming  the topmost branches. Then, once you get your desired trunk thickness, you can trim those lower  branches.

Kenneth Wilson
November 8, 2021
Yard & Garden

Kenneth Wilson

Retired contractor. Currently residing in Southwest Florida. Now in semi-retirement, I write and manage this blog focused on helping home owners make savvy decisions when it comes to finding contractors and getting their projects done.

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