Tuesday, 23 November 2021

How to deal with overhanging tree branches: small garden trees

For some reason, I've had a lot of people all asking me the same question, this year: what do we do when our neighbours' trees are hanging over the fence onto our side, and we want to get rid of them?

I am guessing that this is in response to C-19, with a lot of people spending time in their gardens:  people who maybe didn't previously use their gardens very much?

And suddenly they are noticing how much nicer the garden would be, if it wasn't being invaded or overshadowed by next door's trees!

Hedges are one problem, and I'll save that for another post, but trees are quite easy to deal with. For the purposes of this article, we'll assume you are talking about smallish trees, or shrubs, which are just putting a few branches over to your side, and which are small enough for you to feel that you can tackle the branches with a pair of loppers or maybe a small hand saw.

Anything larger than that, and  you will need to get a tree surgeon involved, but for now let's assume it's just a couple of branches of a smallish tree.

Firstly, the legal situation

The law says that we are allowed to prune off overhanging branches, but they belong to the neighbour. Especially if they have fruit on them - the produce belongs to the neighbour. 

Technically, all overhanging fruit, including windfalls, belongs to the owner of the tree, not the person on whose lawn it drops, but no-one would ever try to enforce that. 

(mental image of laboriously picking up every single windfall, wasps and all, and launching them back over the fence...)

However, we can't just post them over the fence - that's fly tipping.

Properly speaking, you have to present them - cuttings and/or fruit -  to the neighbour, and ask them if they want them: and if they do not, then you have to dispose of them. 

So what is the correct way to deal with it? 

You should approach the neighbour, before doing anything, and tell them that the branches of their tree are intruding, and you want to have them removed: ask the neighbour if they would prefer to do this work themselves, or would they be happy for you to do it, and dispose of the cuttings.

Always make it sound as though you are just trimming: don't use the word chainsaw, removing, tree surgeon, or cutting: just say "trimming a couple of bits off".

If you are lucky, they'll say "oh dear, terribly sorry, I'll get my gardener/handyman to sort it out straight away."

If you are nearly lucky, they'll say, somewhat huffily, "I don't see any problem?" at which point you invite them to come round into your garden and see for themselves. Usually, when they do this, they then say  "oh dear, terribly sorry, I'll get my gardener/handyman to sort it out straight away."

If you are unlucky, they will shrug, say "Wotever," and refuse to discuss it, in which case, you go straight to "Lastly: If all else fails..." below.

Legal situation Part II: Conservation areas

You should already know if you live in a Conservation Area: but if you are not sure, look it up online: type in the words "conservation area" and your county, and you should find links to maps which show you where the conservation areas are.

I was quite surprised when I did this: I had assumed that Conservation Areas were only, I don't know, nature reserves, or roads with historically important buildings, but this is not the case, and almost every town and village has a Conservation Area or two.

Here are the Hanneys, East and West, two villages near where I live:

As you can see, West Hanney has one block - edged in red, shaded in pink - of Conservation Area, while East Hanney has one large block, and one little isolated bit.

It is quite fascinating, for a rainy day, to find your county's map, and have a look around where you live!

Normally the Conservation Areas are in the older parts of the town, or village, but now that housebuilding has been allowed to creep in all over the place, there are some surprising anomalies, such as this one, where some new houses were built at the edge of a conservation area, so part of their gardens is within it, and part is outside it:

 You can see, on the right-hand edge of the box jutting out to the right, that the (new) houses are inside the shaded area, whereas the bulk of their gardens are not.

I doubt that many of them even know about it! 

But it means that if they want to do any work - pruning, trimming, anything - on any tree or shrub whose stem measures more than 7cm (ie about 3") at 1.5m above the ground (ie about breast height) within the part of the garden which is inside the shaded area, ie the front gardens and the bit of the back garden closest to the house, then they will have to apply for Planning Permission. 

Yes, really! I'm not kidding, living in a Conservation Area means that you CANNOT prune any tree or shrub above the size mentioned, without obtaining Planning Permission first.

So it's well worth checking this out, before you do anything.

Right, moving on from the legal side:

Secondly, the physical side of it: 

It's worth pointing out that (legally) we are only allowed to cut back to the actual point where they overhang our boundary, which can result in something really ugly from our side, and bad-for-the-tree (horticulturally speaking) on their side.

What I mean is, if you drew a line vertically upwards from your fence, and cut off everything at that point, you'd end up with a lot of amputated stumps to look at, each of which would either die - very ugly - or would produce a clump of vigorous shoots, thus making the problem worse for future years, as well as looking a bit peculiar.

The correct way to do it, would be to assess each of the trespassing tree limbs in turn, and either cut them back to the trunk, leaving a neat wound that will heal cleanly: or to shorten them at a point which retains the "form" of the tree.

It's often worth pointing this out, in the hopes that the neighbour will take the sensible decision to do their own pruning, in order to control what is cut.

Thirdly, the moral side of things:

When dealing with any sort of boundary issue, the first rule - as discussed in this post about invading brambles -  is "Don't fall out with neighbours if you can possibly avoid it" which usually means talking to them, preferably before you get really cross about it, and definitely before you do the chopping!

If you already have a reasonably friendly relationship with the neighbour, all well and good: but if you are a bit distant, or - worse - if you've already had a bit of friction, then it can be hard to go and speak to them: but it's worth gritting your teeth and accepting that part of being a grown-up is having to do things you don't really like doing.

Approaching them in a fighting spirit is NOT the way to get it done: a calm approach along the lines of "I wonder if you'd be kind enough to.." or "Hi there, you might not be aware of this, but your [insert name of tree] is overhanging our side quite badly now, and I wonder if you'd be kind enough to ..." is much better.

Sometimes a pre-slaughter approach, along these lines, can prevent years of low-level war and bad feeling...

Lastly: If all else fails...

If they refuse to talk about it, slam the door in your face, or say they'll see to it, but never actually do it, then you will have to do it yourself, in which case I would advise dropping a note through their door to notify them that you will be carrying out this work on the [insert date] and that if you do not hear from them before that day, you will assume that they are happy for you to do the work and dispose of the cuttings.  Take a copy of this note - take a photo of it - to prove that you have notified them. Then get out there and do the work yourself. (Or get someone in to do it, obviously.)

And yes, obviously it's "unfair" that you will have to deal with disposing of the bits you cut off, but sometimes it's a small price to pay, in order to get rid of the annoying or intruding branches.

So there you have it: overhanging branches of smallish trees, how to deal with them. Always try the "nice" approach first, and strive not to let it escalate into war!


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