Alternatives to consider when a tree grows beyond its space

Big ornamental cherry trees in Master Gardener Mary Fran McClure’s backyard have outgrown their space and are over-shading the landscape. Rather than removing the trees, select horizontal branches will be removed on their sides, providing better growing conditions for the landscape.

A common problem seen in city lots is when a cute little tree outgrows its space. The problem could begin because it was planted too close to a building, or the owner didn’t do the homework needed to learn its eventual size at maturity.

“Depends on what is your idea of too big,” says Anita Poortinga, an East Wenatchee certified arborist and owner of Lawncrafters.

For a large tree in the center of a yard, Poortinga says one alternative is limbing it up. That means cutting off lower branches right at the trunk. Pine trees tend to have trunks that grow up before putting out good branches, so they are good candidates for having space beneath their canopy. Although if you’re in a windy area, you might consider wind damage as you’re creating a top-heavy tree, she adds. You also need to accept the idea you’re going to have a mostly shady yard.

On the other hand, spruce trees tend to branch out from the ground up, so it's not as easy to limit low branches. An alternative is leaving it as is with low-spreading branches, then remove lawn and grass near those low branches to prevent challenges of lawn mowing, she suggests.

“A blue spruce planted 10 feet from your home can be limbed up to make it acceptable,” Poortinga says, although there’s still the fire hazard problem with all these conifers.

Depending on type of tree, those along a property border could be trimmed, making them two-dimensional — in other words, cutting back lower branches that reach out horizontally from each side. Some trees can handle this method, although it’s not helpful to the tree, she says.

A good example is my own backyard with three huge ornamental cherries lining the fence. The original owner had them topped every year, making ugly branch stubs visible every winter. These topped trees produce water sprouts and prodigious new growth, making it a vicious cycle of pruning, followed by next season’s wild growth and unhealthy trees.

By carefully cutting no more than one quarter of the side limbs over a two-year period, you’ll have less suckers and water sprouts.

These two-dimensional trees will produce less blanketing shade yet still add beauty. It’s one alternative in order to keep these trees while limiting their spread.

On the other hand, arborvitae can take limited pruning, as long as trimming doesn’t go beyond the green growth. This can keep a hedge within reason.

November through late winter or very early spring is the best time to tackle these jobs.

Certified arborists can guide you and provide likely alternatives. Other landscapers or tree trimmers may or may not have good information to aid in your decision making. It takes years to grow a nice tree and a botched job isn’t worth it. To get a list of these arborists, email Master Gardeners at chelanmastergardeners@gmail.com or phone the Extension office at (509) 667-6540 and leave a message.

Poortinga recommends asking a lot of questions and taking time to understand what the person you contact would do to remedy your problem tree. After all, evaluating alternatives may produce an adequate solution short of destroying the tree.

A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in The Wenatchee World. Mary Fran McClure is one of four columnists featured. To learn more, visit wwrld.us/cdmg or call (509) 667-6540.

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