I hold a B.S. in Landscape Architecture from Iowa State University and have over 25 years of professional practice. I am now a volunteer.
Removing tree limbs can have multiple purposes. One reason to remove tree limbs is because they were damaged somehow (perhaps by storms, insects, disease, or people). Another reason for removing tree limbs is to make landscape maintenance easier. Removing the lower limbs of trees is usually done with the future in mind.
How Low Branches Can Interfere With Your Landscape
Most overstory trees will live for about 300 years and grow to a height of about 60–75 feet and a width of about 40–50 feet (depending on the type of tree). A tree branch remains at the same distance from the ground as the tree grows taller. This closeness to the ground can interfere with mowing and with people moving around under the tree. It could also cause damage to buildings, if not removed.
In the home landscape, people might be more tolerant of low branches. In public spaces such as parks where the mowing equipment is larger and people are moving under and around the trees seeking shade, picnicking, and playing sports, however, lower tree limbs—as they become larger and larger—become a nuisance and may even pose a danger to people.
When You Should Begin Removing Tree Limbs
Whether in a home landscape or in public areas, it is beneficial for the health of trees to begin removing a few of the lower branches each year. The best time to do this is between three years after the tree was planted and when the desired distance from the ground to the lowest limbs is reached. This height depends on the type of activity happening around and under the tree—the more intense the activity, the higher the distance should be. This work is usually done during the winter months when trees are dormant, so the work will cause the least amount of stress on trees and provide the least exposure of the cut areas to insects and disease.
Many times, low-branched trees in the landscape do not become a problem until the trees have grown for several decades. But waiting for this to happen, and then trying to correct the issues later on, leads to expensive tree work and unsightly trees. Lower limbs of trees continue to grow outward and thicken. Soon they become too large and dangerous for the homeowner to manage on his own and require the need to hire someone with large equipment to handle the removal. This happens in public spaces as well, and then the public entity bears the brunt of the costs.
In addition to the cost and work involved in removing large, lower tree limbs that have become problems, there are also the aesthetics to take into consideration. The once beautiful tree now has huge, gaping holes where the large limbs have been removed. Most people do not think of these issues while young trees are growing. Drive through older neighborhoods, especially during the months when trees are not covered by leaves, and you will see many problems.
Proper maintenance of trees while they are young demonstrates concern for the environment and for the enjoyment of generations of people to come.
The above mature locust and maple were both neglected by homeowners who did not remove their lower branches while they were young. The lower branches were removed after they became a problem when the trees were older. Now they will be forever disfigured with large gaping holes that will never completely heal over. Furthermore, since they are mature, they will never recover and grow back into the beautiful, round shape that they could have attained with proper limb removal.
This is an October Glory maple in the landscape at Grace Community Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It was most likely planted when the church was built in 1984. The lower branches were not removed as the tree grew, and now they were becoming a problem, as they interfered with mowing and people moving around and under it. Trying to correct the problems now causes the tree to look unsightly. But it still has about 250 years of growth left, during which it will fill out and become the beautiful tree it was meant to be.
This is an October Glory maple with its lower limbs removed after about 35 years of growth. It looks awkward. It still has about 250 years of growing to go, however, so it will fill back out and become full and rounded in shape.
Here are two more October Glory maples with lower limbs removed. Several limbs could not be removed without heavy, specialized equipment, because they leaned out over the church building. This is a resulting problem when tree limbs are not removed from young trees as they grow.
The trees were also planted too close to the building, thereby putting the structure of the building in danger should the tree or large branches fall on it. In addition, extended root growth could cause building foundation damage.
I have been planting trees professionally for over 40 years, and I usually plant a tree as far away from a building as possible. As a general rule, I plant trees at half of their mature width away from buildings. So, if a tree will attain a mature width of 50 feet, I will plant it at least 25 feet from the foundation of the building.
Only some of the branches of this October Glory maple could be removed. There are about four more large ones that should be removed, but they lean out over the building, and the tree was planted too close to the building.
Making Proper Cuts
This photo shows the removal of a tree limb stub on a 35-year-old Pin Oak. I cut it after the majority of the limb was removed first, thereby reducing the potential of bark ripping. There is a slight angled, downward cut that will allow rainwater to flow down and off of the stub, rather than pooling inside and causing rot and disease.
This is an old cut on the Pin Oak that was not done properly, which has caused the wound not to fully heal over. It should have been cut with a downward, sloped angle to allow rain water to run off of the stub.
These Blue Spruce are about 35 years old. They have become diseased, causing their lower limbs to die. I removed the limbs first by cutting them about 1 or 2 feet out from the trunk for the sake of reducing bark peeling. This practice also lessens the potential of the tree limb lurching back and hitting you as it detaches from the support of the tree trunk.
Equipment, Timing, and Position
Tree limb removal can usually be accomplished with a 16-inch chainsaw, which can be easily manipulated around branches, and you can climb a small ladder with it.
Another advantage to cutting trees during the winter months is that you can cover your body with protective clothing and not sweat to death. I wear jeans, long-sleeved sweatshirts, leather boots, and double-lined gloves. I also wear ear, eye, and head protection.
Tree limbs have the potential to lurch backwards as they detach from the support of the tree trunk and hit you or your ladder. So it is best to try to predict where and how they will fall and be as prepared and protected as possible.
This is my 8-foot, aluminum ladder. I have it positioned on the limb about 1 to 2 feet out from the trunk. I first cut off the larger portion of the limb, and then I come back and cut off the stubs. I move the ladder around the trunk as I cut. And when possible, I position the ladder so that the trunk is partially blocking my body from the limb that I am cutting, thereby adding a layer of protection for myself.
Promote Healing and Health
These are the stubs left after cutting most of the branches off. Next, I cut these off about 1 to 2 inches out from the trunk, leaving a donut-like stub, which will allow the tree to heal over the wound. The removed stubs are useful for campfire wood.
This is a large limb stub that is cut at a downward angle. It is also important to allow a few inches of the stub next to the trunk to promote proper grow-over healing by the tree. Cutting flush with the tree trunk could result in the tree not being able to self-heal over the wound, thereby increasing the potential for damage from insects and disease.
Notice in this photo that the old cuts were done improperly by cutting too close to the trunk and they did not heal over correctly.
This photo shows a wider view of how to position your ladder as you move around the tree.
When cutting the tree limb, I cut about 1 to 2 feet out from the trunk first by making about a 1- to 2-inch undercut on the limb, followed by cutting the limb through from the top down to the undercut. This reduces the potential for bark ripping backwards along the branch and the tree limb lurching backwards and hitting you as it becomes detached from the support of the trunk.
This is a 6-foot fiber glass step ladder. I also use 8- and 12-foot aluminum step ladders. Fiber glass is sturdier but becomes more difficult to move easily under trees when using larger ladders. Plus, fiber glass is more expensive.
What to Analyze Before Cutting
This is an ash tree that is about 35 years old. I cut it down due to the onslaught of the Emerald Ash Borer.
Before cutting down a tree, I carefully examine it with regards to which side of the tree caries most of the limb weight, direction of natural lean, and the surrounding area where it could potentially fall.
Trying to get the tree to fall where you want it to is your goal. However, as much as possible, you must work with the natural direction that the tree is likely to fall.
These cuts in the trunk are positioned in the natural direction that the tree is mostly likely to fall. I first cut the bottom wedge out and then cut the upper, angled, downward cut towards the wedge cut.
It is best to keep looking up at the tree to watch for it to begin to fall. As it begins to fall forward towards the wedge cut, move back away from the tree quickly to see if it will fall the rest of the way on its own. Tree trunks have the potential to bounce or lurch suddenly upward and hit you.
When the wedge cut is not angled downward, the tree trunk will rest on it rather than slipping down to the ground, which increases the potential for it to bounce upward and hit you.
Trees are usually cut about 2 to 3 feet above the ground to increase the potential to further direct its fall to where you want it to go.
The trunk can be removed later.
I removed the lower limbs of these 35-year-old Blue Spruce trees, because they were diseased and had brush growing underneath them. The limbs have been removed at a height that will allow for a riding lawn mower to pass easily underneath them.
Ease of Maintenance and Dormant Seeding
Once the lower branches have been cleared out, then the bare ground under the Blue Spruce trees can be seeded with grass seed. I planted a blend of about three or four varieties of fescues with one or two varieties of Blue Grass soon after November 15 in Northern Iowa, which is known as dormant seeding.
Dormant seeding can be done any time the potential for the grass seed to germinate has passed. The benefits are that the seed will remain dormant until very early spring when the ground thaws and warms, and the rains come. Fescue grass seed will germinate and grow when the air temperatures reach 65°F. The ground will not be able to be worked until it has become dry and crumbly, however, which takes a few weeks after all the frost is out and the ground has dried from the early spring rains. Waiting until this time causes several weeks of lost time, during which the grass seed could have been germinating and growing and taking full advantage of the spring rains and cool weather, which are ideal conditions for fescues to grow.
The lower limbs of this Blue Spruce tree have been cut up high enough for a riding lawn mower to pass easily under and around it. The old needle mulch that was underneath the tree was raked into a mulch donut ring around the trunk of the tree, which will serve to keep down weeds and grass from growing up next to the trunk. This will remove the need to weed whack around the trunk, which can cause potential damage to the trunk. It looks odd at this stage, but the grass seed will germinate and grow, filling in under the tree and the mulch donut, and then it will appear more natural.
Removing tree limbs from very young trees a little at a time as they grow is the best-case scenario. However, many homeowners and others usually do not see the need until the tree has reached its maturity and the lower branches have become a problem. Removing them later becomes necessary but leaves the tree permanently disfigured and unsightly.
When homeowners and others take the time to remove tree limbs when the trees are young, they are considering not only the future health and beauty of the trees, but also the future safety and pleasure of generations of people that will enjoy the majesty of well-maintained trees.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.