Green Landscaping of San Jose

Whether you’re a new homeowner in San Jose or have lived here for years, the trees on your property need regular care and maintenance to stay healthy. You may have heard the terms “tree trimming” and “pruning” used interchangeably, but they refer to different techniques for caring for trees. 

In this post, I’ll define these two practices, so you know when each is appropriate for your landscape trees. Properly maintaining trees through trimming versus pruning can help prevent disease, improve their appearance, prevent hazards like overhanging branches, and even increase your property value. 

I’ll also recommend when to hire an ISA-certified arborist versus doing the work yourself. With the correct information, you’ll feel equipped to take the best care of the trees that provide shade, beauty, and enjoyment to your outdoor space. Let’s explore the difference between trimming and pruning so you can make informed decisions for your San Jose trees.

What Is Tree Trimming?

Tree trimming refers to cutting away dead, diseased, or damaged branches in order to maintain the health and appearance of trees. The goal is mostly to “tidy things up” by removing unsightly branches.

Trimming can include:

  • Removing dead, dying, or diseased wood
  • Cutting away branches with splits or cracks
  • Thinning areas that look overly congested with branches
  • Cutting branches that rub together and cause wounds
  • Removing suckers (vigorous shoots growing straight up from the trunk)

Tree trimming is often performed along with pruning to remove unhealthy branches and shape the canopy.

Is Trimming Healthy for Trees?

In moderation, trimming is beneficial for tree health. Removing dead or damaged branches prevents decay from spreading to healthy tissue. Getting rid of branches that rub together reduces the chance of wounds that could lead to disease.

However, excessive trimming can stress trees and do more harm than good. Never remove more than 25% of the tree’s canopy in a single season, as removing too much foliage reduces its ability to generate energy from sunlight.

Only trim off what is necessary for tree health and safety. The best approach is to trim lightly but frequently, such as checking landscape trees once per year and removing any branches showing signs of problems.

What Is Pruning?

Pruning refers to the selective removal of living branches and stems to shape the tree and encourage healthy growth patterns. Reasons you may choose to prune a tree include:

  • Encouraging better structure by removing crossing or competing branches
  • Increasing air circulation through the canopy
  • Improving access along walkways or driveways by elevating low branches
  • Enhancing the visual form or silhouette of the tree
  • Reducing risk by removing weak branches that could fail

The focus of pruning is guiding future growth and managing hazards, not just removing things that look out of place.

There are different types of pruning cuts:

  • Crown thinning: Selectively removing small live branches to reduce density
  • Crown raising: Removing lower branches to provide clearance
  • Crown reduction: Cutting back the tips of branches to decrease height and/or spread
  • Crown restoration: Pruning old or neglected trees to improve structure

Proper pruning techniques are vital, which is why professional arborists receive extensive training. Poor pruning can damage trees and lead to disease or structural failure down the road.

Is Pruning Healthy for Trees?

Yes, when done properly and at the right times of year, pruning provides significant health benefits for trees.

By pruning branches that compete for light and resources, the remaining branches and tissues receive more energy and nutrients. This means larger fruit, beautiful fall color, and healthier growth.

Getting rid of inward-facing branches also improves air circulation through the canopy. Good airflow allows the leaves to dry more quickly in damp weather, reducing fungal and bacterial diseases.

Raising low branches provides safer passage underneath while lifting the crown for easier mowing and maintenance. And removing dead wood helps limit the spread of decay throughout the tree.

However, as with trimming, moderation is key. Never remove more than 25% of the tree’s canopy within a single year, even if pruning for health reasons.

Differences Between Pruning and Trimming

Now that we’ve covered the specifics, let’s recap the key differences:


  • Trimming: Removes dead, damaged, or poorly placed branches
  • Pruning: Guides future growth and form by selectively removing living tissue


  • Trimming: Focuses on correcting existing issues
  • Pruning: Seeks to optimize long-term health and appearance


  • Trimming: Less precision needed in where/how branches are removed
  • Pruning: Cuts are more intentional based on branch structure and growth needs

Amount Removed

  • Trimming: Removes only necessary branches
  • Pruning: Can remove up to 25% of living branches/foliage


  • Trimming: Can be done anytime issues arise
  • Pruning: Best done in dormancy before growth resumes

As you can see, pruning is more involved and detailed than basic trimming. Pruning seeks to enhance the landscape, while trimming focuses on maintenance.

What Kinds of Tools Are Needed to Prune or Trim?

To safely get the job done without damaging valuable branches, having the right pruning and trimming tools is essential.

Trimming Equipment

Basic trimming of small branches can be accomplished with manually operated shears and loppers. Useful tools include:

  • Bypass pruners: Ranges from small hand shears to larger lopper-style tools that cut branches up to 2 inches thick. The sharp cutting blade slices cleanly through the branch without crushing.
  • Pole pruners: Allows reaching up to trim high branches from the ground using a manual or electric saw on an extension pole.
  • Hedge shears: Long blades that give good leverage for efficient trimming of shrubs and bushy growth.

For large branches that require sawing, chainsaws or handsaws with 6 to 10 inch blades work well. Chaps and protective eyewear are vital safety equipment when using any power saws.

Pruning Equipment

The equipment above can be used for light pruning work. Additionally, the following professional-grade tools allow for more detail:

  • Bypass hand pruners: Give precision control for smaller cuts up to half inch diameter.
  • Loppers: Ratcheting compound action types allow substantial leverage and a clean cut on branches up to 2 inches thick.
  • Pole saws and pole pruners: Enables reaching the interior of large tree crowns for selective branch removal at a distance.
  • Pruning saws: Slim curved blades provide very precise and clean cutting action compared to bulkier chainsaws.

Sharpening stones and cleaning supplies will maintain high performance pruning tools between uses. And safety essentials like glasses, ear protection, gloves and hard hats apply for prune jobs too.

Investing in quality tools ensures accuracy and avoids undue damage to the parts of the tree you intend to keep. This is especially key for detailed pruning cuts versus basic trimming.


Trimming and pruning both improve tree health while serving unique purposes. Now you know what sets these maintenance practices apart.

Trimming removes only compromised branches to tidy appearance. Pruning strategically cuts living limbs to enhance form and future growth.

Approaching each landscape tree with the appropriate technique provides needed care without going overboard. An ISA Certified Arborist can assess tree health and recommend a plan for trimming versus pruning on an individual basis.

With this foundation, San Jose homeowners can understand terminology for communicating effectively with tree care pros. You also know what DIY equipment works for basic trimming versus more involved pruning jobs.

Keeping mature trees vigorously growing has major benefits. Proper pruning encourages beauty, longevity, property value boosts, and environmental perks like cleaner air and wildlife habitat. By learning the differences between trimming and pruning, you can make informed decisions to get the most out of your landscape trees for years to come.


Is trimming a tree the same as pruning?

No. Trimming is the light maintenance that removes dead, damaged, or unsightly branches. Pruning is selective removal of living tissue to shape trees for health and aesthetic purposes. They overlap but have distinct goals.

What does trimming the tree mean?

Trimming refers to basic maintenance that eliminates unhealthy wood and problematic branches. It lightly tidies things up without reshaping the overall tree.

What is it called when you trim a tree?

The process of removing unwanted branches is called trimming, and it helps keep trees looking neat while preventing disease spread into the canopy.

What are the 5 rules of pruning?

The 5 key rules to follow for pruning trees are:
1: Always have defined objectives like cleaning, thinning, raising, or reducing.
2: Use proper pruning techniques that don’t leave branch stubs.
3: Only remove as much live wood as necessary, up to 25% maximum.
4: Leave the branch bark ridge intact for healthiest cuts.
5: Prune at the right times of year based on tree species and goals.

Should you cut lower branches off a tree?

If lower branches are alive and healthy, pruning them off is unnecessary and stresses the tree. But removing dead lower branches or carefully lifting the canopy for clearance by selectively cutting small live branches is beneficial.

When should a tree be pruned?

Most pruning is best done during winter dormancy before spring growth resumes. Exceptions are spring-blooming trees pruned soon after flowering, and preventing disease spread by pruning during dry weather.

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