Why You Should "Limb Up" Your Trees

“Limbing up” – also known as “raising the crown” – can help to form a handsome woodland scene, adding depth, diversity, and a unique sense of place to the home landscape. Limbing up can add aesthetic value to the home by selectively carving out spaces for people, plants, and architecture. Read on to learn more from the following passage in The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook...

Imagine a young 10-foot-tall Japanese stewartia grows in your front yard. You’ve chosen it about seven years ago for its yellow-centered white flowers, yellow to purple fall color, and flaking gray, tan, and orangey bark. Trouble is, you can’t see any of that bark because the tree was branched almost to the ground. You decide to limb it up while it is small, since you expect it to grow about 25 feet tall. You do the work yourself with hand pruners when the branches are less than 1 1/2 inches in diameter.

You also have a shade border with a sugar maple, a red maple, a pin oak, and some shade-tolerant shrubs and perennials. You had a problem with those trees some years ago, however. When you weeded newly planted primulas and barrenworts under the trees, you’d whack your head on the lowest branches. The trees were not fully mature but they were already big – about 25 feet tall for the 13-year-old sugar maple. For a big tree-pruning job like that, you turned to a certified arborist rather than doing it yourself. Over a few winters, they removed some branches and made a shade garden a joy to maintain. The trees are still full and beautiful, but you no longer have to worry about banging your head.

Limbing up, also known as raising the crown, frees space for people, other plants, and buildings. It can open a distant view and provide more sunlight to plants growing underneath the canopy. It also increases air circulation under the branches.

If you have aged conifers like the white pines, give them a second look. Sometimes the tops of old conifers shade out lower branches, which then diet and break off in storms. Although birds like to perch on those snagged limbs, you can achieve a more refined look if you remove the low dead growth.

Not every tree needs limbing up. While pin oaks, with its droopy lower branches, may keep you from gardening successfully, there are other trees that you may not need to touch. For example, the low twisted branches of Tortuosa European beeches create variety and visual interest in the landscape. Similarly, sourwoods are so perfect in their pattern of growth, beautifully droopy flower clusters, and long lasting burgundy fall color that you may not want to change a thing.

Raise a tree’s canopy in late winter or early spring before new growth starts. Beware of removing too many branches at any one time. Foliage collects energy necessary for healthy roots. A big reduction in leaves may stress a tree, making it prone to damage from disease or insects. Prolong the process of limbing up over several years if necessary, so that you can leave at least three-quarters of the crown intact with each pruning.

Limbing up trees increases the amount of light that reaches the ground. Do you grow dense-canopied trees in your lawn, surrounded by individual rings of mulch instead of grouping them in larger beds? Raising the crowns may help the turf below them to survive.

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