using tools to trim tree branches
(Image credit: Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman / Getty Images)

I love trees more than any other plants. That’s why I planted about 250 trees on my land in France. When I returned to France after being locked out so long by COVID-19, I found myself living in a forest!

The best advice I’ve received in a long time came from my French friend and gardening mentor Maixan. It involved cutting back the trees.

250 Vigorous Trees

There is a difference having 250 seedlings in a yard and having 250 vigorous trees. When I first walked onto the property again after France opened the door to vaccinated Americans, I loved the shade, the overhang of branches, the birdsong everywhere.

Summer was a joy, since the Pays Basque tends to get too hot for my taste, and having ample shade seemed a blessing. When I wanted sun, there were plenty of spots between trees where I could tan.

Winter Sun

But as summer faded into fall and fall edged toward winter, I became aware of a natural phenomenon that I hadn’t really paid attention to before. The journey of the sun across the sky changes as the year cycles through its months.

Of course, I knew this in theory, but now I saw it in practice. Those big pines I installed on the rim of my property to shield it from curious eyes had grown fast. While the sun topped them in summer, the winter sun’s trajectory was lower. One day I did a wash and realized that there was nowhere to hang it! Those tall trees effectively blocked the winter sun all afternoon long.

Cutting Back the Trees

My friend Maixan urged me to think about cutting back the trees. I was adamant that I loved the forest. But she told me that pruning trees was an important part of tree care, that trees grew better and stronger with moderate and appropriate pruning. She reminded me that other trees inside the property required sun to thrive.

I admitted that I was afraid to cut back the trees, especially the conifers. She told me to prune moderately, keeping the shape of the tree intact, to prune in such a way that nobody could tell I had pruned.

This was the best advice I received about gardening this year and I remain grateful for it. After consideration, I decided to give it a try. I very gently pruned the tops of those evergreens, cutting back here, trimming there, allowing in the sunlight again. Other trees and shrubs on the land now get rays too, not all day but at some point, and I have enough sunny spots to dry my clothes! And nobody has noticed that I gave the trees a haircut.

Teo Spengler

Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.