Shorten fir trees: this is how you cut the tip correctly

One often reads or hears the question of how fir trees are properly shortened. Overall, this is a much-discussed topic on which opinions sometimes differ greatly. There are also some facts that speak in favor of not pruning these trees at all. This article is very comprehensive about whether fir trees should be shortened at all. The contras, which are understandable for everyone, may encourage you to forgo the planned cutting of the tree top. On the other hand, the guide also provides specific tips on how to best proceed when shortening a fir tree.

Why cut the fir tree?

There are several reasons circulating among hobby gardeners and professionals why it can make sense to shorten a fir tree. Here is an overview of the most important (supposed) triggers:

  • Extend the life of the fir
  • increase light transmission

But can these effects really (sustainably) be achieved by cutting the tip? To answer this question, more detailed explanations of the two points now follow.

After several decades or as a result of unfavorable conditions (insect infestation, lack of water and so on), fir trees show the first signs of gradually wanting to say goodbye to life. If you don’t intervene at this point, the trees will soon have to be felled. Those who do not want to allow this sometimes tend to cut off the top of the crown. There are more or less trustworthy foresters who are of the opinion that the lifespan of a fir could be extended by the measure. They state that the tree then no longer needs to be supplied even more by the roots and can thus distribute the energy better and accordingly be preserved for a while.

However, there is no evidence that this theory is really true. And there are numerous opponents of the view. Some experts even vehemently contradict the assumption – and even laypeople can gain more from these explanations than the assumption of a life extension: If the fir tree is shortened in the crown area, several competing main shoots usually develop. This in turn makes the tree even more “top-heavy” and imbalances it statically. As a result, it is less able to withstand unfavorable external influences and the probability increases that the fir will die in a stronger storm by breaking and falling over (especially if there is previous damage).

Note: After the actual apex disappears, several shoots try to form the new apex. They compete with each other and over time crowd each other out. The consequences of this could be partial crown eruptions. Furthermore, the branch connections on the tree trunk are sometimes not up to the load that gradually arises. Further cutting measures must therefore be taken regularly.

Apart from the instability, the inefficiency of the method also speaks against cutting the tip. Shortening is not a natural care measure, this is repeatedly emphasized by professional arborists. The tree doesn’t particularly like it when you interfere with its existence in this way. Then he tries to save what can be saved. The new shoots grow amazingly fast and a few years later present the hobby gardener with the same or even bigger problem: several tips that may protrude higher than the original tip did. This leads directly to the second (and more common) reason mentioned for trimming a fir tree.

Neighbors sometimes complain that too little light penetrates their property or into their house because the fir tree next door is so huge and massive that it casts too much shadow. It is not uncommon for them to ask the “owner” of the tree to fell or at least shorten the tree. They don’t consider (because they don’t know) that the measure can solve the lighting problem in the short term, but in the long run it doesn’t help at all. Because very few hobby gardeners want to trim every year, as the task involves a great deal of financial and/or time effort. From all of this it follows that in the long term it actually makes no sense to shorten a fir tree.

Shorten fir – disadvantages

In summary, once again the disadvantages that clearly speak against cutting a pine top:

  • does more harm to the tree than good
  • has no life-prolonging effect
  • From now on, the tree must be trimmed regularly

In addition to all these cons, there is another negative point that should not be underestimated: a fir tree that has been cut at the top does not look nearly as beautiful as before and has no chance of ever regaining its original appearance. With a lot of skill and care, you can ensure that the tree remains somewhat in its typical shape, but the formation of several peaks can hardly be prevented.

Some hobby gardeners and experts who have already come into contact with the subject advise either leaving the fir tree alone or cutting it down completely – according to the motto “All or nothing”. It is important to remember, however, that clearing trees is not allowed just like that. You have to get a permit for this, even if the plant in question is on your own property and is therefore in a sense property.

Anyone who, despite the many arguments that clearly speak against the cutting of the top of the fir tree, decides in favor of the campaign or even plans to cut down the fir tree cannot avoid dealing with the legal situation in advance.

Legal information on shortening/felling a fir tree

The fact is: Anyone who shortens or even fells a (protected) tree without official permission commits a criminal offense and can get into real trouble for it – in the form of high fines. Many municipalities and cities protect old trees (keyword Tree Protection Ordinance). So you always have to involve/contact the responsible city or district office before you start pruning a tree.

Then a typical case from practice: If your neighbor “prescribes” you to shorten the fir tree in the garden, you shouldn’t go straight into it – especially not if you’re very attached to the tree and actually want to leave it as it is is. There are legal provisions here too. The neighbor has no legal recourse if he has known the height of the tree for some time (it is best to ask the responsible authority for the exact deadlines).

Another important point – both legally and morally – is the breeding season. You should definitely take this into account if you decide to cut a fir tree. After all, birds may live in the tree and have their nests where you want to cut back the fir. From about mid-March, capping is usually prohibited.

Tip: The best time to trim the fir is at the end of February/beginning of March, when the first frost-free nights arrive.

How to properly trim a fir tree

Now some tips on how best to shorten a fir tree if you think it is necessary.

a) A reasonably sensible solution is to let the fir tree grow upwards and instead only remove the branches underneath. After all, these are also the longest on the tree and most block the light from penetrating and providing brightness.

b) Similar option: Cut back the fir in a pyramid shape. It is quite possible to shorten the height a bit. The cut must be straight, i.e. at right angles to the branch. Then you cut back the side branches evenly – in such a way that they get longer and longer towards the bottom.

Important: Only cut the “newer” (this year’s) shoots, i.e. the needled, green ones. In contrast to the older branches, they have reserve buds that sprout again in the same vegetation period after the cut. If you also cut off the older branches, shoots at this point are lost forever and there are bare spots on the tree.

c) Alternatively, you can try to first make a straight cut at the targeted height. Then you choose two leading branches, bend them up and connect them with a thick cord. They form the new tops. One to two years later, the weaker of the two leading branches is removed.

Tip: The fir tree should be shortened by a maximum of one third, both in terms of height and sides. However, it is best to take as little as possible from her. Not to forget that the tree must be trimmed annually after the first intervention.

An important tool for shortening a fir tree is a lifting scissors, which can be extended using a telescopic rod so that you can get to the crown. In addition, a garden ladder and pruning shears as well as a folding saw are particularly useful utensils.

Kira Bellingham

I'm a homes writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience in publishing. I have worked across many titles, including Ideal Home and, of course, Homes & Gardens. My day job is as Chief Group Sub Editor across the homes and interiors titles in the group. This has given me broad experience in interiors advice on just about every subject. I'm obsessed with interiors and delighted to be part of the Homes & Gardens team.

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