As spring approaches, it is time for you to begin to think about the trees in your yard. Pruning dead branches from your mature trees is an important part of spring tree trimming. When preparing to trim your tree for spring, the first step is to inspect for dead branches. These branches may be difficult to identify when there are no leaves on the tree, but there are ways to tell if the wood is dead.

Look for Leftover Leaves

Deciduous trees, or trees that drop their leaves in the fall, make identifying dead wood surprisingly easy. If the entire tree is bare except for one or two branches, those branches are dead wood. By spring, those trees that tend to cling a bit longer to their leaves, like oak trees, will have let their leaves fall, so the remaining branches with leaves are likely dead. If you have had many storms with high winds over the winter, you may need to look closely as the leaves may have been ripped off by the winds, but upon closer inspection you may find the leaf stem still present on the dead branch.

Missing Bark and Bare Wood

Another way to identify a branch as dead before new spring growth begins is to look at the bark on the limbs. Bark is the tree’s way of protecting the inner wood, and if there is very little bark on the branch exposing the inner wood, it can be a sign that the branch is dead. There are reasons that bark can come off of a healthy branch, including natural shedding of old bark. Healthy wood will replace this bark continuously, much like our bodies make new skin cells. If you see a branch that has a lot of smooth bare skin, it can be a sign that the branch has died.

Careful Inspection

A more close-up look may be required for some branches that are not clearly dead. Under the very outer layer of wood on a twig and branch is a thin layer of green called the cambium. This is green all year unless the branch has died, in which case it turns brown. Using your pruners, a knife, or even your fingernail, you can gently scrape off the outer layer of wood to see if the cambium layer is brown or green.

You can also shake a branch to provide clues to its health. A healthy branch will have some bend to it and not easily break. A dead branch will be more brittle, breaking easily and may even feel lighter, almost like it is hollow. A branch that has been dead for a while may even pull right off in your hand.

In the end, if you can’t decide, you can wait until the first buds of spring. Dead branches will not bud, and then you can remove any branches that you missed or were unsure of. Removing these dead branches early can help prevent them from falling and damaging your home and vehicles during spring storms. It also gives the tree a clean starting place for new growth, thinning out any dead wood that may be blocking light.