Tips For Designing With Trees

I’ve been driving through Richmond BC lately and have been struck by how many disastrously pruned trees there are. Most of them are pruned the way they are because they are interfering with utility lines/poles in some way.

So this post is a primer on how NOT to design with trees.

My Neighbourhood

This tree was already badly pruned away from the utility lines, when they came last Fall and chopped away mercilessly
This tree was already badly pruned away from the utility lines, when they came last Fall and chopped away mercilessly
You can see, right to the trunk!
You can see, right to the trunk!

This is “my” tree–ie, on my property. But BC Hydro doesn’t really care whose tree it is, if they think it’s interfering with their lines (why don’t we have underground lines??), they chop chop chop. And the “arborists” who did the work… arggghhh!

Let’s look at some more: this one is around the corner,

A maple, probably a sugar maple.
A maple, probably a sugar maple. You can gauge the size of it by looking at the car toward the back, just outside the tree’s shadow. And yes, that is the same tree growing way above the top of the building.

Next we have a whole street of cherry trees, about 3-4 blocks of them:

Cherry trees
Cherry trees–two blocks over from my street.
Here's a double whammy--
Here’s a double whammy– same block as previous picture.
This one doesn't have much life left in it.
This one doesn’t have much life left in it. Click on it for a larger view.

Bottom Line

So my point with all these disasters? CHOOSE YOUR SPOT. Big trees will grow big, and the utility lines don’t, so make sure your tree at maturity will be safe from the utility company.

How long before this spruce succumbs to the chain saw?
How long before this spruce (or is it a fir?) succumbs to the chain saw?

Moving on to spacing:

Sugar maples again
Sugar maples again

These maples–I think they’re sugar maples–are planted about 12 feet away from one another. Now sugar maples reach 20-35 m tall and almost as wide. So if they even only get to 15 m across but there’s only 12 ft between them, none are going to be very happy. (Interestingly, around the corner the same townhouse complex has ornamental plums spaced much further apart– more like 20′ apart.)

Now about how close they are to the sidewalk (about 4′):

Maple trees have large vigorous roots that don't do well near sidewalks.
Maple trees have large vigorous roots that don’t do well near sidewalks. This is a stock photo, not my neighbourhood.

So again, big trees need big space. Before buying your tree, read the label, determine if there’s room in your garden for the mature size of this tree, and if not, please buy something else.

More about Spacing

Still in my neighbourhood.
Still in my neighbourhood. Admirably trying to hide the … whatever it is.

These lovely Thujas (or Arborvitae) are all planted about 16″ apart. The mature size of even the smallest, narrowest Thujas is about 3′ (which I found out by Googling “mature size of Thuja”– remember, Google is your friend!) This is going to result in not only a lot of pruning, but quite a lot of dieback, as new growth keeps getting cut off. Even shrubs that tolerate a lot of pruning, like Boxwood, should still be planted with their natural mature size in mind.

Also Thuja
Also Thuja

Now I confess, this is not my preferred pruning style for Thuja, but look how healthy they are, spaced widely enough that they all get lots of light and air.


Trees are a wonderful investment, and a significant one as well, being not inexpensive. Do the best for your tree and your investment, make sure you’ve read the label, talked with the garden centre, and looked around to see a mature specimen of your chosen species before you buy. There are so many beautiful trees out there, certainly one perfectly suited to your unique environment.

Have you got a tree in the wrong place, are you having to prune, prune, prune, or is your walkway or driveway buckling with the vigour of tree roots? Leave a comment or question, and I think WordPress will also support leaving pictures (?)

Would love to hear your comments. Go to Client Site Analysis page for design help.

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