We’ve all seen it: a tree dreadfully mutilated by the unequal pruning carried out by the local utility company. And you can’t really blame them: when there are medium or high tension wires running above ground, they have to keep all vegetation at a safe distance (usually 10 feet/6 m) and they have no time to beautifully shape the trees they run into. It’s a real wham, bam, thank you mam situation!
If all the branches on the right side of the tree have to go, that’s what they’ll remove, no matter how ugly the result. if the top has to go, leaving a hole in the middle, down it comes! For the homeowner with such a tree on their property, the only way to remedy the situation is to entirely remove the offending tree.
In an ideal world, of course, all power, telephone and cable lines would be underground and indeed, more and more are being buried as time goes on. But I don’t think you should expect all above-ground service lines to disappear for many, many years. I certainly don’t expect that in my lifetime!
While dealing with an existing situation offers no easy solution (eyesore or tree removal: take your pick!), preventing the problem to begin with is a no-brainer: simply avoid planting trees or tall conifers under or near power lines!
Smaller Plants Cause No Problems
The simplest solution is to plant shrubs instead of trees. By most definitions, shrubs don’t exceed 20 feet (6 m) in height and can therefore grow directly under the power or telephone line without causing problems. And small trees too can be grown under power lines.
However, every yard needs at least one larger tree (and preferably several). So, before you plant, plan. And take your tree’s future dimensions into consideration in planning where to put it.
Most people immediately understand they shouldn’t plant a tall tree under a power line when it’s pointed out to them, but never seem to consider how wide a tall tree will become over time. Yet most trees these days are sold with their future dimensions clearly printed on the label. Do the math, people: a tree should be planted so that none of its parts will be less than 10 feet (3 m) from a power line at maturity. So on top of avoiding trees that will be too tall, take the tree’s eventual width, divide by two (because the trunk will be at the middle point of the tree) and add 10 feet (3 m). That should keep the utility company pruners forever out of your life.
People with small yards may find it impossible to find room for some of the classic tall shade trees (Norway maple, red oak, silver maple, etc.) when there is a power line nearby. After all, many big trees will need to be planted 45 feet (13 m) or more from the power lines and your yard may be scarcely that wide! However, you may well be able to grow a tall tree if it has a columnar habit. Think upright English oak (Quercus robur ‘Fastigiata’, ‘Tower’ poplar (Populus x canescens ‘Tower’), or columnar sugar maple (Acer saccharum ‘Newton Sentry’). Some of these can be planted less than 20 feet (5.5 m) from the lines.
On-Line Tool For Tree and Shrub Selection.
Here is a useful tool to help you choose trees according to the minimal distance they need to be planted from a power line: Choose the Right Tree or Shrub. It was designed by Hydro-Quebec (the electricity supplier for the province of Quebec in Canada) and therefore covers only hardiness zones found in that province (zones 1 to 6). It also only takes into account the trees’ mature size in those zones. It might well not be as accurate in warmer climates where some trees grow taller and wider than in the North, nor does it include trees of interest for gardeners in warm temperate or tropical zones (not a single palm tree was included, for example!). In warmer climes, I suggest you contact your local electric utility for their suggestions.
For those who can use it the tool (most gardeners in Canada and the Northern US, plus extreme northern Europe), however, here’s how it works:
If you have a specific species or variety in mind, enter its name and call up its file. If not, select an appropriate variety according to the criteria offered. Pay special interest to Height, considering the following definitions:
Small Tree: less than 7 m (23 feet)
Medium Tree: 7 to 10 m (23 feet to 30 feet)
Tall Tree: 10 m to 15 m (30 feet to 45 feet)
Very Tall Tree: over 15 m (45 feet)
Now, carry out the search. For each choice, you’ll see a Safe Planting Distance given (in meters). That is the distance from the power lines where you can safely plant the tree or shrub. if the result is 0 meters, you can stick it right under the service lines and just thumb your nose at the power provider!
Great! That answers your question. But I’m a visual learner. I like to see the results… and that’s where this tool really shines.
Next to each suggestion, you’ll see View Full Record. Click on this. It calls up a photo of the tree or shrub, growing information, dimensions, etc. and that’s fine. But what I really like, and I don’t see on other Web sites, is that the Full Record includes an illustration showing how big the tree gets compared to a utility pole. There is even also a human figure it the drawing for further reference. Bingo! Seeing how the tree or shrub compares to the utility pole really makes it perfectly clear for me.
Try it and see: you might find the Choose the Right Tree or Shrub tool very useful!