You intend to plant a tree? Wonderful! We need more trees in our world. But to be a good neighbor, make sure you plant it completely within the limits of your property where it won’t cause your neighbors any annoyance. Unfortunately, that’s not what many gardeners do!
A lot of people seem to think the ideal spot to plant a tree is squarely on the property line or just inside its limits. Over time, the little tree will grow much taller and could easily interfere with your neighbor’s enjoyment of his property, cutting off sunlight to his lawn, drying out his vegetable garden with its roots, shading his formerly sun-washed swimming pool, etc.
What the Law Says
Where you plant trees rarely seems to be covered by laws, at least not in the US and Canada. Usually they simply state that property owners have to behave as “good neighbors”, but what exactly that means is open to interpretation.
Logically speaking, when it comes to planting trees, good neighborliness would imply that trees be planted at a reasonable distance from the neighbor’s property, enough so they won’t harm it. How far from the property line will depend on the tree’s eventual height and crown diameter. A short, narrow tree could be closer to the property line than a tall or broad one. For example, if the tree’s crown is expected to reach 20 feet in diameter at maturity, it would seem wise to plant it at least 10 feet (half of its width) from the neighbor’s property so it stays entirely on your side.
Some European countries do regulate how close you can plant to a property line and it can be interesting to look at what their laws say.
In France, for example, a tree or shrub with a height greater than 2 m (6 ½ feet) at maturity cannot be planted less then 2 m (6 ½ feet) from the property line. And a shrub or hedge not exceeding 2 m (6 ½ feet) in height must be planted at least 50 cm (20 inches) from the property line. I find a distance of only 2 m (6 ½ feet) between a really large tree and the boundary line a bit thin, but at least the law is clear.
Good neighborliness should also apply to trees you didn’t plant, but that sprout on their own near the property line. Maybe Mother Nature sowed them, but if they are on your side of the line, the rules of good neighborliness suggest that it’s best to remove them. And if they germinate just on the other side of the line, you could tell your neighbor about the pending problem.
Of course, 99% of homeowners never consider the above and the problem shows up when the tree starts to interfere with someone’s use of their property.
Let’s assume you’re the one who’s suffering because your neighbor’s tree, now fully grown and stretching well over your property, is killing your lawn or making it impossible to grow vegetables. What can you do? Do you have the right to prune the offending branches?
It all depends on where you live. I suggest you contact your municipality first, or your state or province if the municipality isn’t being helpful, to find out what their laws state.
In many places in the US and some Canadian provinces, common law says you can prune branches that cross the property line as long as this pruning is not detrimental to the health of the tree. Theoretically, you could also prune tree roots… but you may have a harder time proving this is not detrimental to the tree if the neighbor takes you to court. Even the fruits from your neighbor’s apple tree are yours if they hang over the property line.
In my province (Quebec), as well as in Ontario, the situation is seen very differently. The tree is considered to be the property of the person on whose land it grows and only he has the right to cut it. You are not entitled prune the branches (or even harvest its fruits) without the owner’s permission. You can ask him to prune the harmful branches or for permission to do it yourself, but he is perfectly entitled to refuse. If the nuisance is real and the neighbor refuses to carry out the requested pruning (or tree removal), you need to send him an injunction. And if he still doesn’t react… well, get a lawyer. You’ll either need to negotiate or take the case to court.
If the tree grows right on the property limit (if it’s a “boundary tree”), it belongs to both of you… but you’ll still need the neighbor’s permission to prune or remove it, although you do get to eat the fruit on your side of the line. It’s joint property and you both have to agree on how to manage it. What percentage of the tree needs to be on one or the other side of the line for it to be considered a boundary tree varies. Check with your local authorities. Ontario recently took a very broad view of tree ownership: even if only a small percentage of the tree’s root system reaches over into a neighbor’s yard, that tree is joint property!
Complicated? You bet. And all this could have been avoided if the tree had been planted in the right place!
Shrubs and Hedges
Although I’ve been specifically writing about trees, all the above applies to shrubs and hedges as well. And hedges always seem to cause the greatest conflicts.
People tend to think of hedges as being like a fence. And a fence would ideally go directly on the property line, allowing both neighbors to share its ownership plus its cost and maintenance. But a hedge is not a fence.
Hedges grow in width over time, so if you plant one on the boundary, it will end up encroaching significantly on the neighbor’s land. So if you want to plant a hedge and still live in peace with your neighbor, you should plant it entirely within the boundaries of your own property. In fact, it might be wise to plant it far enough inside line that you can even prune it without ever setting foot in the neighbor’s yard. That way, no conflict is possible.
If you want to plant a shared hedge, and your neighbor agrees, you can plant exactly at the limit of two properties. But make sure you sign a paper confirming who will be taking care of its maintenance (pruning, fertilization, etc.) in order to avoid future conflict. Certainly, it’s not wise to share pruning duties on the same hedge: your idea on how high and large the hedge should be and how to shape it can be very different from your neighbor’s way of thinking. One or the other of the owners should be in charge of that.
Why write it down? First of all, you and your neighbor may well remember things differently 10 years down the line, but even more importantly, the neighbor with whom you made the deal can move and the newcomer will not necessarily see the situation the same way. But that signed paper can pass through the hands of multiple landowners and still be valid. If you say you’ll do the pruning and put it in writing, the person who buys your home from you will have to take care of it… or renegotiate.
In conclusion, before you go ahead with the planting of a tree, shrub or hedge anywhere near the boundaries of your property, it is always best to look into its future dimensions and consider whether your planting it can in any way affect your neighbors. And before pruning a tree or shrub, even if it appears to be on your side of the property limit, it is always wise to check with the authorities to know what local laws say.