Looking After Your Trees

How does a tree work?

A tree is the sum of a number of highly specialised compartments, each of that is dependent upon the other. The roots take up moisture and nutrition, the leaves create sugars from sunlight, via a process called photosynthesis and the trunk and branches act as a support and transport system between the two.

How deep do roots go?

Although seedlings will often produce a single, long 'tap root' as they mature the configuration of a tree's root is almost exclusively lateral and within the top two or three feet of the soil. Any alteration in soil levels either up or down within the rooting zone will result in serious damage.

What are the most common causes of damage to garden trees ?

  • Soil compaction in the rooting area eg by vehicles or material storage.
  • Changing soil levels in the rooting area generally but particularly around the trunk.
  • Damage to bark - through which the tree transmits its nutrition.
  • Inappropriate works to branches and trunk – see later notes.
  • Excavation such as digging foundations that include cutting roots. This can also cause the tree to become unstable.
  • Laying drives or other hard surfaced areas– which can both cause compaction and cut or damage roots
  • Lighting fires beneath the branches of a tree may result in root damage as the soil heats, the scorching of foliage and the death of buds and branches, and the scorching and killing of bark which ultimately permits the entry of harmful bacteria and fungi into the tree.

What is the best thing I can do for my tree?

Simply leave it alone. Whenever you take a cutting instrument to a tree you are altering its natural state and destroying a defence mechanism, breaking down a barrier against infection and infestation. A tree should only be pruned to remove branches that are damaged by natural causes or diseased.

I have a tree in my garden, what are my responsibilities?

The owner of a tree is usually responsible for its well being and safety, and should take all reasonable and practicable precautions to avoid the tree causing damage to other people or property. If the tree does cause damage the owner of the tree may be held liable. Additionally an owner may be held liable for negligence if the damage results from a defect in the tree, that the owner was aware of but failed to address.

What if my tree is too tall?

A tree grows (within its species limits) as large as the space, light, water, nutrition and oxygen available to it permits. A tall, vigorous tree is usually a healthy one.

I want to prune my tree. What are the options?

There are several:-

  • Formative pruning - the pruning of a young tree to produce a specimen, that in maturity will be free from major physical weaknesses.
  • Crown lifting - the removal of a tree's lower branches, or parts thereof, to reduce obstruction, increase daylight or open views beneath the crown (the collective name for the leaf and branches).
  • Crown thinning - the selective removal of branches, or parts thereof, evenly throughout the tree's crown to reduce its density without affecting the tree's overall size and shape.
  • Crown reduction - the cutting back of branches to a side bud or sprout to reduce the overall dimensions of the tree.
  • Dead wooding - the removal from the tree's crown of all dead, dying or diseased wood.
  • Remedial pruning or crown cleaning - the removal from the crown of a tree all diseased or damaged branches, unwanted or unsightly growth, and invasive climbing plants such as ivy or honeysuckle.
  • Pollarding - the removal at a pre-determined height of the crown from a young tree to encourage the development of a knuckle (pollard head) from that grow young shoots that are regularly harvested. 'Topping' is not pollarding.

Note:- 'Topping' is the removal of the crown from a mature tree. It is extremely harmful and under normal circumstances should not be practised.

Wound paints - should not be used to seal a pruning wound, they can do more harm than good.

What is the best way to achieve the following common objectives?

  • Reduce the risk of storm damage and wind-throw: crown thin and crown clean.
  • Increase light levels: crown thin (the maximum recommended by the British Standard is 30% of the leaf or potential leaf area).
  • Prevent falling dead branches: crown clean and deadwood.
  • Alleviate obstruction to public thoroughfare or highway: crown lift.
  • Alleviate problems arising from branches coming into contact with the fabric of property: specific branch reduction.

Are there any reasons to fell trees that the Council generally regard as insufficient when considering applications to carry out work to trees?

Yes, the following :

  • The trees shed their leaves in autumn, that I have to clear up/ make my path slippery/block my gutters.
  • The trees produce seasonal debris i.e. acorns, beech nuts, sycamore wings.
  • Children try to collect Horse Chestnuts.
  • Children are climbing the tree.
  • The tree encourages aphids into my garden.
  • The tree is too tall/big.
  • The tree might be blown over in high winds.
  • The tree creates sticky residues.
  • The tree is obstructing my view.
  • The tree prevents me from receiving satellite television signals.
  • The tree is causing shade/restricting light. (dependant on the impact)
  • The tree might damage my house (if there is proof that the tree IS causing damage, then the situation is different)
  • The tree is lifting my drive (problems such as this may often be remedied by root pruning or relaying paving slabs).

While the Council will not generally look favourably on applications to fell trees for these reasons each case is considered on its merits and it is important that your application gives all your reasons for wanting to carry out work and the evidence on which you rely eg the report of a qualified arboricultural consultant.

For more information on tree care refer to BS 3998/1989 - British Standard Recommendations for Tree Work, available from British Standards Institution, 2 Park Street, London W1A 2BS. Expensive to purchase but may be available from libraries.

We publish advice on a range of matters including through Frequently Asked Questions on the following topics:-

All information contained on this and other pages relating to trees is written for the benefit of tree owners, the general public and amenity groups and answers some of the most common questions relating to trees. It is for guidance only and is not a statement of the law. You should consult a solicitor if you are unsure of your legal rights or obligations.


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