How to Prune Red Oak Trees

Lightly prune red oak trees to maintain a shapely and healthy tree.
Lightly prune red oak trees to maintain a shapely and healthy tree. (Image: Red oak tree in autumn with blue sky and white cloud image by Freshwater Seas from

Red oak trees (Quercus rubra) require light pruning as young trees to train them to the desired shape. As the red oak matures, pruning is only necessary to maintain the shape, remove dead or diseased branches and promote air circulation throughout the canopy. Ideally, pruning for red oak trees is done during the dormant season from November through March to avoid spreading the oak wilt fungus or weakening the tree during its growing season when it is more susceptible to oak wilt. Use a disinfectant to sterilize the pruning tools after every tree when pruning more than one red oak tree.

Things You'll Need

  • Pruning shears
  • Pruning saw
  • Disinfectant (anti-fungal)

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Trim the red oak during the dormant season after planting. The goal of pruning is to achieve branches that are arranged evenly and symmetrically placed around the trunk. These are known as the scaffolding branches.

Cut back any branches at the top of the red oak tree that compete with the leader, or the central growing tip that develops into the main trunk. Leaving branches to grow in competition with the leader creates a tree that is prone to splitting, weaker scaffolding branches and a less pleasing silhouette.

As the red oak tree grows, prune branches that reduce air circulation and light within the canopy, branches that grow rapidly straight up or down off the main branches, branches growing across each other and suckers--branches growing up from around the base of the tree.

Tips & Warnings

  • Prune the branches back at the junction where they meet the trunk or main branch, on the branch side of the "branch collar," which is a slight swelling at the base of the branch. This process is also known as thinning.


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