Limbing up trees in winter sheds more light on the subject


People often ask me why their formerly prolific vegetable or flower garden just doesn’t seem to be performing at nearly the level of just a few years prior. In reply I ask them, “Do you have trees that have perhaps encroached overhead?” It’s only then that the light bulb goes off.

Over time, a sunny garden spot often becomes shadier and shadier as branches of distant trees begin to encroach overhead. Plants, flowers, vegetable gardens and even lawns simply can’t perform to their potential when full sun exposure is required for peak performance. The situation is gradual, taking years to finally impact whatever lies beneath. But when it does, from then on, it gets a little worse every year as shade becomes the dominant condition. Fortunately, there is an effective approach you can try to alleviate the problem, before resorting to removing trees completely.

In my playbook, the first strategy is to raise the canopy of whatever trees are obscuring areas where you need more sunlight. I start by removing as many of the lower limbs as possible. The higher I can make the canopy, the better, keeping in mind the aesthetic consequences of each cut. The term is often referred to as limbing up. It’s one of the most important outdoor activities I save for the dormant months from January through March. The strategy involves removing enough of the lower limbs to allow significantly more light to filter down. Short of cutting the trees down, limbing up is the next best thing in areas where plants are looking leggy, shrubs are just not flowering as they should or where you are trying to grow grass. Removing several layers of the lower branches can be enough of an improvement to restore spotty turf areas to a fuller looking appearance. For me, the best part is, I still get to keep my beloved trees, while providing enough light to keep sun-loving plants productive too.

If even more light is needed, use this time to look into the canopy as well. With leaves off the trees, it’s easy to spot branches that could be removed without altering the overall look or shape of the inner branch structure. The best testament to the success of this strategy at my house is the comments I often get from other gardeners at their surprise at how well my lawn and other plants do, with so many trees. When properly done, no one realizes a significant number of limbs have been removed from the tree. Even better, in many cases the tree actually performs better after the haircut. More light into the center of the tree is very good for its overall health, too.

Another point to consider during this exercise is to think about which limbs to keep. 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.

Consider hiring a Certified Arborist. The limbing up process can be a do-it-yourself project but I don’t advise it, especially when it involves larger branches. A professional Certified Arborist can ensure tree limbs are removed safely and properly. 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. Mature trees are not easily replaced and an improper pruning cut could lead to its demise. Certified Arborists have the training and equipment to get the job done right. You can find them listed in the phone book under Tree Care. Look for the “Certified Arborist” logo or designation by their name. A true Certified Arborist will have credentials. Ask to see them. In all cases, you’ll want to make sure they have the proper insurance. The professionals pay dearly for this, and they expect you to ask. Yes, they may cost a bit more, but it’s well worth the investment.

Joe Lamp’l, host of “Growing a Greener World” on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information, visit

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service