These whitecedars, Thuja occidentalis, have had the lower 2/3 of their growth cut off, a practice known as “limbing up.” This practice, when performed on evergreens, never really looks good and is something to be avoided whenever possible. These homeowners didn’t, sadly, giving us another Bad Pruning to learn from.
The lesson, in short: don’t cut a living branch completely off an evergreen tree for aesthetic reasons.
Why is this the rule for evergreens? It has to do with these trees’ natural shape, and how they store energy and grow. Evergreen trees don’t have the well-placed extra buds and food reserves that deciduous trees do. They therefore almost never regrow where pruned back hard, such as back to the trunk or the ground. Limbing them gets you a plant with stilt-legs and knobby knees.
Evergreen trees also usually have a pyramidal or columnar shape. These look more natural, richer, when they go to the ground. Exception to the rule: If your evergreen is weeping (such as weeping blue atlas cedar) or irregular (like cedar-of-lebanon), you can actually probably limb it up and be okay. Limbs won’t regrow but, done tastefully, it won’t look starkly unnatural.
Alternatives To Limbing Up
- Prune back lightly. Cutting back much less of a younger branch to a node won’t make the tree look as bare, and healthy regrowth is likely. The younger you start this kind of intervention on the lower limbs, the better.
- Kill a blocking tree and plant a more suitable species. Evergreen “screen trees” like redcedar, whitecedar (arborvitae), and leyland cypress are very widely available in large sizes and narrow forms and grow fairly quickly. It may feel expensive especially if you need to hire labor to plant them (consider trying to plant them yourself instead) but the weeping once over the money is better than weeping forever over the eyesore.
- Ask: “Do I really have to?” The homeowner in this photo didn’t. You can see that the left one is not blocking a window view. The right one had its right side shorn for the window—not great practice, but so be it—but there was still no need to limb it up for a view.
- When you have to: If a limb is diseased or seriously damaged. If you need to be able to see through the tree or create walking clearance for safety reasons. I’m just here to tell you, don’t expect it to ever look good. Evergreen trees were not made to be “limbed up.”