When you first plant a tree, it’s often a gangly little thing: a thin trunk, lots of little branches from its middle to the top and not all that many leaves. You’ll want to keep it as is for maximum effect.
Then, it starts to grow. The next thing you know, it’s taller than your house and densely covered in branches and leaves, often to the point where you really can’t see its structure when it’s in leaf. And the garden underneath, that one that used to receive full sun, is now completely shaded out. Plus the lower branches are stretching out over your lawn, shading it as well, and making mowing difficult. They may be blocking a path or cutting off a once beautiful view. That may not have been what you bargained for.
This will seem obvious to some gardeners, but maybe not others, so … remember that a tree’s branches always remain at the same height from the ground; they do not rise as the tree grows.
But you don’t have to let lower branches interfere with your gardening or the use of your lot. As trees grow in height, you can selectively remove the lower branches, letting light back in and making circulation under the tree easier. Called limbing up or raising the crown, this does no harm to the tree and, in fact, replicates what happens in a forested area in the wild.
You can limb up most trees in any season (always check with a local arborist for any exceptions), removing up to 20% of the tree’s foliage in a given year. If it has a lot of lower branches, you might therefore want to limb up over two years or even three. Ideally, in the case of a tall tree, you want eventually to clear branches from the lower 7 feet or so (2 m) so you (and guests) can move around under the tree with danger of anyone bumping their head on a branch. Esthetically speaking, too, you’ll probably want to free about 1/3 of the lower trunk, leaving the upper 2/3s intact.
And have you ever seen beautiful gardens in a forest of mature trees? Take a look! You’ll almost always see that the trees were limbed up to a considerable height to allow more light in. Low branches are just not conducive to gardening.
Do It Yourself or Hire an Arborist
You can do the pruning yourself if the branches are near enough to the ground for you to be able to reach them. (Obviously, any time you remove a branch higher than your head, you should be wearing a safety helmet.) For out-of-reach or oversized branches, it’s better to have a certified arborist do the job. Avoid fly-by-night tree trimmers who often damage trees rather than helping them.
So, get your garden back: limb up and discover all the beautiful space you could be landscaping!