Don’t Hesitate to Remove Lower Tree Branches

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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.

Limbing Up

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. 

Gradually

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. 

Limbing up can free up a lot of garden space you never knew you had! Photo: http://www.holemanlandscape.com

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!

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3 thoughts on “Don’t Hesitate to Remove Lower Tree Branches

  1. Mary Johnson

    I am surprised you said it’s OK to limb up any tree at anytime. What about the ruling of definitely not cutting Oak Trees in summer for fear of Oak wilt which is a serious disease and may even end up killing your beautiful Oak trees? Also Elm tree cutting in summer invites a different serious disease as well, does it not??? Trimming up I understand but the lower branches being cut completely off at the tree trunk really concerns me and contradicts everything I’ve been educating myself about. Possibly you only meant limbing up to mean snipping off partial ends of very long low hanging branches but I don’t think that’s what you mentioned and explained as limboing up! I’m totally confused now. Please respond if and when you can. Thanks very much!!

    • Thank for these precisions.

      I was, of course, generalizing. One can scarcely do otherwise when writing texts about gardening that are read all over the world. You can limb up most trees in most climates in any season. But there are going to be exceptions everywhere. I’m going to return to the text and add a (vague) note about that. I can’t be specific, because, for example, oak wilt is limited to a relatively small area on the planet. Most people certainly could limb up oaks in spring, summer, fall or winter. Same with elms, although it’s a somewhat broader problem, although there are many elms that are not subject to elm beetles and you could limb up in summer. And I could fill pages with other exceptions!

      I will immediately go back and make the change.

  2. Most trees prefer to be pruned while dormant in winter. None should be pruned while they are at their most vascularly active phase in early spring, although limbs sometimes break and need to be dressed at that time. Maples and birches will bleed profusely for a long time if pruned too late in winter or in spring! Pines are likely to bleed if pruned in the warm part of summer. A few spring blooming trees are typically pruned in summer, just so that the lower limbs get to bloom one last time before getting removed, but technically, winter is still the best time. (I pruned a few flowering cherries and dogwoods in summer, after their spring growth matured. They still get the remainder of summer to produce a bit of new growth to bloom the following year.) Even palms (if considered to be trees) have certain seasons in which they should not be groomed, because pink rot and other pathogens are more active during humid weather. There are more exceptions than accurracies to the generalization that “You can limb up most trees in most climates in any season.” Because various trees are on various schedules, arborists can plan their work accordingly.
    When pruning young trees, unwanted lower limbs that have potential to become prominent components of the developing canopy should of course be removed. However, for some trees, some of the smaller twiggy ‘stubble’ that will not interfere with the development of the canopy can remain to promote caliper growth (for a heftier trunk while the tree is young). Such stubble can be removed as the associated trunk expands sufficiently to support the weight and leverage exerted onto it by the canopy above, as it is shaded out, or if it tries to grow too aggressively and compete with the rest of the canopy. It is best to eliminate stubble before it gets big enough to leave significant ‘shiners’ (circular wounds left where limbs were pruned away).

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