Limbing up Trees

Short of removing a tree, the best way to obtain increased light is to limb it up

One of the most important outdoor activities I save for the dormant months is to limb up my trees. I have a lot of them, and left unchecked, they could easily shade out my entire yard. However, with some selective pruning, I am able to enjoy the beauty of the trees, and still allow enough light to filter down to my lawn and other plants. The light filtering through is sufficient to keep my turf lush, and my sun loving plants happy.

This annual or semi-annual exercise is well worth it. I am constantly getting comments from other gardeners at their surprise at how well my lawn and other plants do, with so many trees. Limbing up your trees can be a do-it-yourself project but I don’t advise it. The older I get, the more inclined I am to hire a professional. There are several things to keep in mind if you decide to have your trees limbed up.

Which Trees to Prune

As you survey your landscape, examine all the trees that affect sunlight reaching the ground. In woodland areas, you won’t need to do any pruning. However, in areas where your plants are looking leggy, or you are trying to grow grass, or if certain shrubs just are not flowering like they should, you’ll need to see what you can do to bring more light to the ground. Short of cutting the trees down, limbing up is the next best thing.

I like to remove as many of the lower limbs as possible. The higher I can make the canopy, the better. Be sure to keep in mind the aesthetic consequences of these cuts. You’ll be surprised that once the job is done, you won’t even miss those limbs and your trees might even look better if proper attention is given to uniformity during the pruning process.

One other item to consider in deciding which limbs to remove, is think about where you do want limbs to shade certain plants. For example, I have a bed of azaleas that happily grow under several tall trees. But there are several lower branches of these trees that need to be limbed up. However, I don’t want to remove the branches on the west side of the tree, because they provide shade and protection to my azaleas below from the harsh, late afternoon sun. In this case, judicious pruning is best.

Hire a Certified Arborist

There was a time when I would tackle this limbing-up project myself. Now that I am older and wiser, I realize this job is best left for a professional, “Certified Arborist”. Mature trees are not easily replaced and an improper pruning cut could lead to its demise. Certified Arborist have the training and equipment to get the job done right, while protecting your trees. You can find them listed in the phone book under Tree Care, etc. Look for the “Certified Arborist” logo or designation by their name.

Buyer Beware

Stay clear of economy tree services. Just because someone has a chainsaw and a pick up truck, doesn’t mean they know what they are doing. Rather, their interest is likely in getting the job done as quickly as possible, with little to no regard to the long-term health of your trees. If your hired help pulls out tree climbing spikes to prune your trees, send them on their way. These are very harmful to trees and should only be used for complete tree removal.

A true Certified Arborist will have credentials. Ask to see them. In all cases, you’ll want to inspect that they have the proper insurance. The professionals pay dearly for this, and they expect you to ask.

And, If these were not enough reasons to hire the work out to a professional, consider the consequences of even one fall from a ladder. No matter how much you think you’re saving, it is not worth it!

What you should know about tree topping


Joe Lamp'l is the Host and Executive Producer of the award winning PBS television series Growing A Greener World. Off camera, Joe dedicates his time to promoting sustainability through his popular books, Compost Confidential blog, podcast series, and nationally syndicated newspaper columns. Follow Joe on Twitter

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  1. Lee A. Senape says

    Limbed up trees are for park like settings. They give shade directly under the canopy midday and then sunlight filters through (early or later part of the day). Parks and Golf courses are places where these can be seen. Parking lot trees are usually not limbed up. However anything can be pruned or limbed if its done properly.

  2. Jaryd says

    Are there certain shade trees that are better suited for limbing up? We have a parking lot filled with small flowering trees and the client wants to redesign the layout becuase no one can see the building (because of the trees). So I am planning on using a larger tree that can eventually be limbed up to still provide shade to the parking lot but allow for some view to the building.

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