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Why Not to "Limb Up" Evergreen Trees

I'm a gardener and nature lover. I enjoy writing articles and how-to guides that help people learn new things.

Learn which branches can you prune on an evergreen tree and how to do it.

Learn which branches can you prune on an evergreen tree and how to do it.

Trimming the Bottom Branches of Evergreen Trees

If you're trying to decide whether or not to "limb up" or prune the lowest branches on the evergreen trees in your yard, do your homework first. There are a few things that you need to know about evergreens (fir, pine, spruce, cypress, hemlock, etc.) and what it might mean to remove their branches. In some cases it won't be a problem, but in others it can harm the tree.

Should You Limb Up Evergreen Trees?

The answer to this question is usually no. To remove full limbs from an evergreen tree is a very permanent decision that should be made carefully. There are many reasons to leave all the branches, even the lowest ones.

Reasons Not to Trim an Evergreen

  • To maintain structural integrity. For many evergreens, especially young pines and spruces of all ages, the limb structure is part of what makes the tree strong. The lower limbs of the tree support the upper limbs in times of severe weather or heavy snow, and their removal can have a permanent effect on the tree.
  • For aesthetic reasons, these branches are also best left untouched. There is no question that an evergreen tree looks best in its natural state, with branches growing from the ground up. A pine tree will naturally shed some lower branches as it ages, but a spruce will stick close to the ground forever if left uncut. Trees that are limbed up can look anything from odd to plain silly.

If you are considering this pruning technique because a tree was planted in the wrong spot, such as right next to a sidewalk or driveway, a better solution may be removal.

Which Evergreen Branches to Prune

Before we discuss the best time to prune, let's talk about which branches should be taken. Do not start pruning the tree before considering both of these questions.

3 Situations When It's Okay to Limb Up an Evergreen

It is best to leave the branches of an evergreen tree to grow naturally. However, there are some situations where pruning makes sense. A newly planted tree is one such occasion.

  1. When a new tree is brought home from the nursery, it may have a few branches that are overlapping or growing right next to each other. This tends to happen more often when trees are young than later in life, so removal of such branches is acceptable. This means that another branch will still be growing in that area.
  2. The existence of two leaders at the top of the tree is another case where selective pruning may make sense. However, it may be worthwhile to wait a year to see how the tree manages the leaders, since one may win the race. Still, removal of the redundant leader can save you from having a "Y" shaped main trunk down the road.
  3. Diseased branches are one more case where cutting may make sense. Cutting the dead end from a branch that is otherwise healthy can actually prevent further damage to the tree.
This Colorado blue spruce looks perfect with every branch still intact.

This Colorado blue spruce looks perfect with every branch still intact.

When to Prune Evergreen Trees

The time of year that the pruning is performed is important. The best time to prune evergreens is from late winter to early spring, well before any new growth begins in the new season. Trimming only when branches are not actively growing, during the coldest months will make it much easier to prevent additional damage to the bark and avoid introducing an unwanted fungal disease.

Pine vs. Spruce Tree Pruning

There is a difference between how a pine and a spruce tree grow, and it matters when pruning. You can tell the difference by looking a the needles.

Identifying a pine:

  • A pine tree has needles that grow from the same spot, typically with 2-5 needles per group.
  • The branch between these bunches of needles has no needles at all (except on very young trees, where it is harder to see the pattern).
  • Pine trees often have needles much longer and softer than spruce trees'.
  • Most pines thin out as they age and sway in the breeze.

When pruning a pine tree, do not prune further than the last set of needles, preferably just past a noticeable bud that will develop new needles to hide the cut. Any branch that is pruned inside of the last group of needles will not regrow and might as well be pruned to within an inch or two from the main trunk.

Identifying a spruce:

  • A spruce tree has needles that are short and stiff.
  • They appear all along the stem, offering a very full appearance.
  • Until a spruce tree is old or unless it is grown in a wooded area, it is usually dense and difficult or impossible to see through to the other side.

When pruning a spruce tree, prune to a point just above a healthy branch that is covered in needles. From this point, the tree will continue to grow and eventually cover the cut. Pruning back to the main trunk is not a cut that the tree can reproduce a branch from, so think twice before making this choice.

Spruce branches have shorter needles that occur all along the branch tips.

Spruce branches have shorter needles that occur all along the branch tips.

Pine needles join the branch at certain points, and pines produce "candles" that form new branches.

Pine needles join the branch at certain points, and pines produce "candles" that form new branches.

Pine vs. Spruce Trees

Either way, prune to just above a healthy bud to keep the branch going.

PineSpruce

Groups of needles grow from certain points.

Needles continue along branch.

Needles are longer and softer.

Needles are short and stiff.

Tree sways in the breeze.

Tree is quite rigid.

You can usually see through it.

Dense branches are difficult to see through.

How to Prune Diseased Evergreen Branches

If you must prune a branch because it is diseased, follow these tips.

  1. First, remove the entire dead area plus a few inches more for good measure, as the end of the branch that still looks healthy may be infected.
  2. Keep your cutting tools clean between cuts, since they can easily spread the disease to other areas of the tree. Any tool you use should be rinsed in household bleach between every cut to avoid further damage to an otherwise healthy branch.
  3. Get the cut branches away from the tree at once and into a burn pile or to the curb to be taken away to prevent cross-contamination.

If significant branches must be cut, make three separate cuts to take the branch so the bark will not be damaged.

Take the Branch in Three Separate Cuts

  1. The first cut should be from the bottom and about a third of the way through the branch. If you are removing the entire branch, keep this cut a foot or so from the main trunk.
  2. The second cut should be from the top just beyond the first cut. This cut is made until the branch falls off.
  3. The final, third cut should be made to clean up the branch and leave it with one clean cut. If this cut is near the main trunk, do not cut into the branch collar, or that raised area connected to the trunk. Instead, cut just beyond it.
When snow falls, lower branches carry the weight of upper branches: This is one reason those lowest branches are needed.

When snow falls, lower branches carry the weight of upper branches: This is one reason those lowest branches are needed.

The Short Answer

So unless you have disease, dead or crossed branches, or a tree growing into something it shouldn't, pruning is something that is not advised. Leaving your evergreen tree to grow in its natural shape will almost certainly look better in the long run and may make the tree healthier and longer-lasting.

If you must prune, do it in the right season (unless storm damage forces your hand), disinfect cutting tools after each branch is cut, and try to cut just above a healthy bud. By following these tips, your tree will have a chance to recover and fill in the space over time.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can you share your thoughts on deadwood removal from evergreen trees?

Answer: Generally, it is acceptable to remove dead branches on pine trees as they won't grow back. On spruce trees, it can be helpful for the tree to remove dead branch sections so that healthy branches can replace them, since spruces will regrow along the healthy branches that have buds.

Question: Is it OK to cut some of the top off of an evergreen?

Answer: It's ok, but consider why you would want to do that. If you have 2 leaders, for example, eliminating one of them makes sense. To avoid a curve in the main trunk you want to be careful to not just top off the tree abruptly. If you are cutting the top off because the tree is too tall or under a power line, it may be best to consider an alternative, as the overall appearance and natural shape of the tree is likely to get worse over time.

Question: Should you trim dead branches from tall white pine trees that are 70-80 feet tall?

Answer: I would base the answer on where the tree is and how it looks. The problem with truly dead branches on a white pine is that they will eventually break off, so if that is a danger to whatever is below the tree - such as people, cars, etc. - it may be prudent to remove them. Once a pine branch is dead it won't come back to life.

Question: Will branches grow back on evergreen trees?

Answer: As indicated, it depends on the type of evergreen tree and where the branches were pruned. Generally, spruce trees will regrow as long as buds are available, but pine trees pruned past the last set of needles on a branch will not.

Comments

Zie on March 09, 2020:

I have a very large pine tree that had a large limb fall during a storm. This has left a very jagged area. Should a clean cut be made. Should something be painted on this to prevent desease?

dancer1995 on July 21, 2019:

Someone cut the single branch off the top of my evergreen and it was not because there were 2 leaders. The tree look awkward now, is there anything I can do to make it grow correctly?

Diane DeNuccio on April 17, 2019:

Limbed up my Douglas Fir. A few years later, it fell on my house. Top heavy, strong wind.

Sharon Worthington on July 24, 2018:

Your expectation of how to cut an evergreen tree was wonderful.

C Ferrari on September 12, 2017:

The city came and is destroying our whole neighborhood to lay new water pipes. They cut all over my blue spruce trees, from bottom up, and they look horrible--there are knots everywhere, and they did this without care, just wacked them off. This was September 7. The construction manager "said" they'd take care of it correctly through an arborist, but no dates have been set and I don't believe it. I need to know if I should have them taken out, replaced in or around the areas (two were on either side of my driveway) and if the city will replace the trees at all. Does anyone know?

Jterpstra on September 05, 2017:

I had a blue spruce shrub in the landscape near the front door that was very overgrown and wide for the space, so I pruned off the lower branches....lots of them. It actually looks great, but I realize I have done it at the wrong time of year and left many wounds on the trunk. Should I paint the wounds with something to try to deter fungus, and if so with what?

Barbara Aanderud on August 16, 2017:

If you are considering this, please don't. They look horrible when trimmed up from the bottom.

Brian Dooling from Connecticut on May 28, 2015:

Great information! I always thought a lot of older evergreen trees would look aesthetically better if you trimmed the branches at the bottom but now I realize, that's probably not a good idea! Thanks!

The Real Joe from Everywhere on February 17, 2015:

I like this hub. I am still new to hubpages and just now started getting into evergreen, environmental, and nature writing. I think this hub was done nicely and explains things nicely.

Sheri Dusseault from Chemainus. BC, Canada on April 10, 2013:

This is interesting. I have had to trim my evergreens as they were getting way to big for my yard, but I had it professionally done, so they look pretty good. Great hub!