Saving Trees and Views

Sunset Magazine, May 1989

Good and not-so-good lessons from a Puget Sound community.

A generation after it was developed, the community just north of Innis Arden (just north of Seattle) found that its trees were interfering with views of Puget Sound. Residents responded by adopting a covenant allowing homeowners with blocked views to make their neighbors top offending trees at rooftop level. Because it affected so many large trees, the covenant wound up in the courts, which upheld it. This sets a precedent worth watching in other areas where both trees and views are community assets.

The result: Though views are certainly better for many people now, the landscape as a whole has suffered. Many of the topped trees have taken on ungainly -- and sometimes dangerous -- proportions.

In some cases, however, view-seeking neighbors and tree owners found ways to make views and trees work together. Most of their solutions involved the pruning methods outlined here.

Windowing: it puts your eye to the keyhole
Windowing works best when the subject is a large, close-in tree that's blocking your view. By carefully choosing what to cut, you can open a window in the tree that gives you a fully framed view of whatever lies beyond.

Like most pruning, there's a certain amount of art involved in this. When you window a tree on one side, you may want to balance it with some pruning on the opposite side.

Skirting up: you want a midi, not a mini
Depending on your perspective, you may be able to open up a view by removing the lower limbs of a tree. This is called skirting up or limbing up.

As a rule of thumb, don't limb up more than half the tree's visible height (less if possible). Then, if the tree looks top-heavy, thin what remains. A tree should look like a tree, not like a flag of foliage on a pole.

Thinning: keep the structure but take out some of the foliage
The madronas pictured above show what thinning can do. Originally these broadleafed evergreens totally blocked the view of Puget Sound. But now, with a fair amount of foliage gone, you see the water through a lattice of yellow- and red-barked trunks and limbs.

Just as important, the trees still do their job as windbreaks.

Framing the view
The point of all these techniques is to make trees part of the view. A view through trees, or between them, is almost always better than a view without them; near trees establish a perspective for distant vistas.

But sometimes trees interrupt key parts of the view. When that happens and pruning won't help, simply have the offending tree removed. Leave trees on the edges of the view, however; they direct your vision and frame the outlook.

A word about pruning
If you're not an experienced pruner, you should leave large-tree pruning to professional arborists. They have the safety gear and knowledge to do the job properly. Most good ones, by the way, discourage tree topping.

If you're experienced enough to handle the job yourself, here's some recently developed pruning advice.

Don't cut off limbs flush with the tree. Look for the branch collar-the wrinkles that extend from the crotch, around the base of the branch and slightly out from the trunk. Cut just to the outside of it. (If you cut flush, you remove a barrier that keeps disease out of the tree's trunk.)

Don't bother with pruning paint, at least if your goal is to keep out disease. But if you don't like the color of the pale cut wood, painting is just fine.

Why topping isn't the answer
Like the difference between butchery and surgery, the distinction between good and bad pruning is largely one of finesse. Topping a mature tree is arboreal butchery, ranking even below tree removal as a view-enhancement procedure.

  • It's not a good short-term solution. In place of a blocked view, you get an open view framed by the ghastly remnant of a once fully developed tree.
  • It's not a good long-term solution. A dense mass of branches and shoots will replace each cut trunk, ultimately creating a broader, denser (though shorter) top than you had before. Such a top can catch wind like a sail, increasing the risk that the tree will suffer or fall in a storm.

It's true that some topped trees can ultimately recover their beauty, but the recovery may take decades -- after which the tree will block the view again.