Western Red Cedar rehab?

Asked July 10, 2018, 8:04 PM EDT

We just bought a house that has a Western Red Cedar and a pine tree side-by-side in the front yard. The previous owners did not maintain the yard or its plants at all, and we are slowly trying to repair the damages of neglect. On the Western Red Cedar, 90 percent of the branches on the lower five feet of the trunk on three sides are dead, with no or nearly no new growth, and the branches on the remaining side are very much alive, but growing roots like crazy where they touch the ground. I've read that it's not a good idea to prune the lower branches of this type of tree, but I have also read that dead branches can be removed as needed. That said, the tree looks lopsided and will look worse once any dead branches are gone. Is it advisable to prune the whole lower level of the tree so that the branches are even on the bottom all the way around, or should we just prune the dead branches from three sides and let the tree do its thing?

King County Washington

1 Response

I think it is probably fine to prune off those lower branches. It's always fine to prune off completely dead branches (no remaining green growth), and I think it would probably be fine to prune off a few that are still alive if you want to even it up for aesthetics. If some of the branches that are still alive are really big in diameter (i.e. more than 1 - 2") when they meet the trunk, that would give me a bit of pause as it will create a pretty large wound. From the photo I suspect that some of those branches will be pretty big. Western redcedar is decay-resistant and has a better chance of healing than other types of trees. I imagine, though, that this is why you've heard it suggested to not cut off these branches--because the lower branches of cedar get really big in diameter and the wound size is a legitimate concern, even with cedar.

I recommend cutting flush with the branch collar (see http://cru.cahe.wsu.edu/CEPublications/eb1984/EB1984.pdf for specific cutting instructions) using a sharp, high-quality pruning saw (use a saw, not loppers). If the branch is still alive and has a really big diameter, maybe you could try trimming them back (to where it's green if the live part is interior) rather than all the way off. Another option is to try to prune a lower branch off at the trunk and see how it recovers over the next year and let that guide you as to whether you want to hack off any more. Again, I'm just talking about branches that still have some life in them. If the branch is truly dead, there's no problem cutting it completely off. Small-diameter branches are also fine to cut all the way off. I hope that helps.

One other note--It looks like there is some black plastic buried next to the tree. Getting adequate water to the root zone of these trees is really important, so if there is plastic buried over parts of the root zone, you should probably remove it.