I think the only time we’ve shared the exterior of our Tree House was on the same day we announced the fun news that we closed on the sweetest, tiniest, littlest lake house in Michigan. Fun fact: Tree House almost didn’t even come to be, because Scott and I could not get over the main exterior image in the listing. But after looking at dozens of other homes with our realtor, we kept saying, no, no, there’s nothing special to see here. She was patient with us, but she kept asking, what is special to you?
We were still bummed after losing out on a different home to an all cash offer – a home with a skylight, nooks and crannies for built-in bunks and an adorable vintage kitchen (we still think about that house, and sometimes we even drive past it; true story) – and although our realtor had suggested we look at Tree House before, she began insisting. It has that something you’re looking for. I promise. We agreed, if only to take it off the list, because we told her, that house is so, so ugly!
We laugh about it now, because that initial walk through lasted for well over an hour, and we were putting in our offer the next day. All this to say, never judge a book by its cover, right? And if you’re wondering if we’re being too hard on Tree House, well, maybe we are, but to this day, we can’t help but cringe – just a bit! – when we pull up to this:
I mean, it’s fine, but it could be much, much better.
The photo above was taken shortly after we closed, when there was still green grass and leaves on the trees. Our Little Lake House That Could was lovingly dubbed Tree House for, obviously, the trees that surround it. The tan vinyl siding is in decent shape, but the chocolate painted trim is peeling, the gutters are constantly growing saplings, and all the what-we-think-were-garden-beds are overgrown with itchy weeds. And at some point in Tree House’s history, our master bedroom was an addition onto the front of the home, which is why you’re always seeing those cute French doors that lead into the room itself. But as a result, a true front door was eliminated, and now, our “front” door is actually on the side of the house:
There are a lot of things wrong with the exterior, and we’re constantly daydreaming about the day we choose a new color for the siding, paint the trim and, maybe – probably! – extend the porch and add a half-circle driveway. We have plans! Lots of plans! But if we’re being honest, we are having the toughest time actually envisioning the outside of our Tree House for what she is. There’s too much exterior clutter. Today, finally, we’ll give you a proper tour. (Plus, we need your help! More on that in a minute.)
When we imagine the future landscape, quite literally, for Tree House, we think we see rows of beautifully lined, tall and skinny evergreens to hide the street. Maybe we’ll have those same evergreens in the backyard, too. But right now, all we see are massive, overgrown, wide yew bushes (trees?). Eight of them! They’re twice the height of little ol’ me, and they easily take over half of our backyard. Here’s the view from our so-called front door:
We walked through our yard with three different local landscape companies and arborists, and every one of them agreed that the yews were doing us no good. We aren’t super familiar with yews ourselves, but we’ve since learned that almost every part of the tree is poisonous if ingested. Considering we have two dogs that love rustling about the yew branches, it was an easy decision to eliminate them. Because of these overgrown yews, we joke that we can’t see our yard; what yard? And did you know we had a shed? We do!
Here’s a photo of our yard taken from the shed. Yews to our right, and more yews straight ahead! (And just to the right of those yews in the distance, there’s a raised planter bed full of ferns.)
So! The yews are out. Actually, they’re already out, but we haven’t seen them in person yet (we’ll see them this week though!). The company we hired removed the yews last week, including stump removal, so we imagine we’ll pull up to Tree House in a few days and get a great view of … the rotten fence behind them? This is sure to be a prime example of things getting worse before they get better.
But, friends, we need your help! Although this wasn’t initially in the plans, every single pro that walked through our yard with us, unprovoked, told us that we needed to give our extra large maple tree a haircut – like, a chop! Essentially, the maple should have been pruned over the decades, but because it never received the proper care, the limbs grew longer and thinner, with the majority of the growth only budding at the tippy-tops of those branches. Had it been cut back from time to time, the tree would have had more weight lower to the ground, promoting healthier growth while having a more attractive shape, too. Because of the neglect, those looong branches hang precariously over our roof:
We didn’t realize how tall the maple was until this winter! Although it’s not an emergency (somebody knock on wood, quick!), each professional recommended that the tree be trimmed back at least 20′ within the next handful of years for safety reasons – and there’s an asterisk. *It’s not going to look good. For a while. We were sent photos from one of the pros of a recent row of trees where the same job was done, and all I could see where blunt tree tops with no greenery. And what is Tree House without it’s big maple tree?
We’re both terrified, because what if it doesn’t grow back? Also, it’s an expensive job (for good reason), and we couldn’t find friends or family with enough experience to settle our fears. My mind immediately went to this post, where Emily detailed her tragic tree loss at the hands of what she thought was a skilled arborist. On the other hand, what if the professional is right (I mean!), and after a few years, our maple blooms happily and lower, with a nice, healthy weight and renewed sense of vigor?
Help! Does anyone have experience with this?
Although we initially told him to go for it, we got cold feet and backed out. We wanted to talk with you first. Has anyone else encountered this same issue? If so, what did you do? (And do you have pictures?!) Where my arborists at?
In other cute news, there is one tree that’s not going anywhere, and it’s this little guy that’s begging for a rope swing. Someday!
The company we hired to nix the yews will also trim up the boxwoods lining our deck and prepare our yard for the coming season by de-leafing, weeding and mowing. Phew! We were happy to hire this out so that we could put all of our energy into the kitchen renovation, which is still chugging along!
Coincidenally, Andy and just chopped down a single yew. After living here for four years and trying to make it work, our yew was still a giant blob taking up space and offering nothing in return. ? Even the birds didn’t like. They abandoned every nest of eggs each spring.
It’s hard to take the advice to cut back a tree because we are so conditioned to want to save them and let them be wild. There are bad arborists and tree services. There are also plenty of good ones. If you are really nervous, maybe a second opinion would make you feel better. That tree is definitely going to look rough for a year or two, but I think it will fill out nicely.
I sat on a big tree decision for over a year because I felt so badly about cutting down four giant pine trees. It was the best decision. Now, we can see our house, the mildew on that side is reduced, and we get a bit of extra sunshine too.
Thanks, Stacy! You’re right about the conditioning, and we’ll have to let that go. We didn’t think it was an issue at all until the a few of the pros told us, unprovoked by us, that it needed to be done. What would be worse is the tree being damaged in a bad rain or hail storm, and then we end up losing more than just a trim. Hmm. Lots to think about!
We have a huge maple in our side yard and like you, we received recommendations to give her a big ole haircut. However, each arborist we consulted (because like you, we were freaked out and wanted multiple opinions) suggested NOT trimming the top and instead just sticking to the sides. Apparently, making big cuts to the top opens the tree up for disease. That being said, trees grow back (fingers crossed) and sometimes they need to look ugly for a while so that they can be healthier and more beautiful in years to come. Even Emily Henderson says that her chopped trees are coming back nicely! File this under “things looking worse before they look better.”
Ahh! I must have missed Emily’s update. Interesting about the disease though? These are great questions that we can bring to the companies we talked with, thank you!
We didn’t trim out beautiful maple and a freak wind storm took a large branch down damaging our deck and our neighbors home. It also left the tree so damaged we had to cut it down. I would trim your tree. We miss ours.
Yikes, we definitely wouldn’t want to risk that, we’d be devastated! Sorry to hear that happened to you. That’s definitely something to think about. Thanks, Nancy!
I don’t know anything about maples, but I have a good bit of experience with having birches and pines trimmed/removed, and I’ve been forced to become unsentimental about our trees. Lack of care over the decades meant that a lot of our trees had to be removed all at once. We also had to repair the roof from a tree that fell on it and thank our lucky stars that another one fell in the yard instead of onto a structure. What’s two years of ugliness if it saves your tree (and house!) in the long run?
You’re so right, and that was our initial attitude. We figured that the sooner we give it a BIG trim, the sooner it will look nice again! Our only hesitation came with further research and the fear that it may not grow back properly. Are we being silly?!
Can you just get away with trimming the big branch that goes towards the house? Eventually the tree may just be too large at some point to be that close to the house for your own comfort. Our neighbor has a large oak tree outside our bedroom window and during storms we go sleep in the guest room because we are worried it will fall on the back part of our house.
P.S. have you though of eliminating the small window next to your front door? You could shift the door to the left and add two sidelights on either side of the door to make it feel more like a main entrance?
We have so many thoughts about that window, haha! It looks so odd from the outside, but it’s pretty cute from the inside. It’s also an original window, although we can’t figure out why it’s so tall? We’ve talked about a door with sidelights, a larger sliding door, etc, etc. For now we’re going to work with what we’ve got, live with it for a while, and we’ll consider changes down the road if it really bothers us.
We have had our lake house for 13 years now, and yes the trees continually require care (and $$)! We have an arborist out every year. My advise would be to trim it now. While your outside plans may not affect the tree now, in the future your plans could expand or change. Roots will be an issue too – either in the way or could be damaged and affect the tree.
The Chicago Botanic Garden has a plant information service which might be able to review your proposed plan and ease your mind.
PLEASE DON’T LET THEM TOP YOUR TREE!! Sorry for the all caps, but that’s how strongly I feel about the practice. “Topping” is what the practice is called when they do a major blunt cut back to all major limbs and sounds like what you’re describing – you can google and find plenty of reasons why topping is not good for the tree, but here’s one example: https://extension.psu.edu/dont-top-trees
All that said, pruning is important, you don’t want large limbs hanging precariously over your house, etc. However, you should be able to find someone to do targeting pruning of the large limb nearest the house, any limbs that look diseased and damaged, remove limbs that are interfering with others, and so on. Also, I don’t think it’s mentioned in the article I linked, but you shouldn’t remove more than 30% of a given tree in one growing season. Topping almost always removes more than that, but the amount you take can be controlled with selected pruning, you’ll still be left with a good looking tree, and it should come out healthier in the end — and healthier than it would either with no care or with topping!
Thank you for that article! It’s articles like those that gave us pause. For every article like that, there’s another one that says the opposite. We couldn’t be getting more mixed messages! You all are giving us a lot to think about though, which is amazing. Thank you.
I don’t think there’s any reputable arborist that would recommend ‘topping’ a tree! Any article that suggests that is mis-informed, too. If you hire a certified arborist (not just insured) they will steer you in the right direction. We used Davey Tree and they were really expensive, but our trees have never been healthier. I don’t know that I would trust a ‘tree trimmer’ with a job that large.
To be fair, I don’t know if I’m using the proper terms 100% as a layperson, but the one handling the maple tree would be an arborist. Lots to think about, thank you for your advice!
I’d be careful about topping them off, as others have said, it does weaken the tree and make it more susceptible to disease. No matter what you do, I’d plant another tree or two so when this big one does need to come down, you have something more established to take its place. Tough decisions!
Also, I have to second Elizabeth, that sometimes you have to be unsentimental about the tree to the betterment of your home. Have a realistic talk with an arborist you trust – is the overall tree healthy? $$ spent on pruning a diseased tree may not be well spent. If a targeted pruning is done this year, how long until you should expect to have to prune it again? Basically, what are the ongoing maintenance costs going to be?
There’s a saying that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago and the next best time is now. That maple may truly be a great tree but in the wrong place. Working with mother nature (and the natural size and growth habits of a plant) is always easier than trying to fight it. You may be better off money-wise now and in the long term to remove the tree entirely and plant something new and more appropriate for that space, so close to your house.
I hope it doesn’t have to come to that – it’s always painful to lose a large, beautiful tree – but it’s not going to get any easier to do in the later years either.
It seems like the overall consensus is to ask more arborists! The challenge is going to be finding more in this somewhat remote area in Michigan. But yes, for such a large expense and big decision, it’s worth that extra research.
My parents had a huge weeping willow in their garden, it got struck by lightening during a storm and seriously damaged, so it had to have a major trim. It looked like Rod Stewart for a couple of years after that, but is now a beautiful, albeit very much smaller, tree again!
Rod Stewart, yes! :D
We had a huge maple like that in our backyard, wayyyy too close to our house. Our arborists (who we love!) said we can either trim, and trim, and trim year after year in hopes that it will recover, but it was so neglected that it’d be at least 5 figures over the span of 5 years or less. Or, we could tear it out altogether and start fresh. Honestly, I’d consider that if I were you — as long as you still have other trees around for the name’s sake. ;) If they haven’t discussed that, make sure you ask how much long-term commitment is for trimming, or if it’d be better in the long run to just take it out. (I am very pro-tree, by the way! Love them! But sometimes ya gotta be practical for the sake of your yard/house/budget.)
Before you ever mentioned Emily, that’s exactly who I thought of. Such a rough thing to have to do.
I’m dealing with that at my house too. The previous owner made some…interesting choices in where she planted trees. Literally right next to fence lines, right next to a deck, etc. The lemon tree near the back fence cannot grow properly, so I’m cutting it down. She also just planted trees without ever grooming them or preparing them for future growth, so I’ve had to do a lot of correcting on that front.
That tree is super leggy, and as someone who has had several trees hit by lightning or come down in storms, I hate to say it, but I think I’d chop it. It isn’t a good tree, and I think you could purchase a mature tree and groom it to grow better.
Our back neighbors trimmed their leggy tree about 4 years ago and it came back in force. It looked a little crazy for the first year or two but now looks really, really good. Still a little bit odd in winter but only from our yard probably. Agree it’s probably not a bad idea to plant another tree further from the house as an insurance policy for the future.
While I LOVE big beautiful trees, I’ve also had the experience of them falling on our home and creating severe damage. Your tree is super leggy with multiple limbs that could create damage. If it were me I’d either do the significant trim or, like others have said, consider replacing it with a new mature tree (for probably a simlar cost) Yes it hurts to consider that, but it might save you a lot in the long run.
We have several big trees on our property as well and they are $$ to upkeep. However, we work with a great arborist and trust their judgement. Our arborist said to NEVER trim trees this time of year. Trimming should be done while they are dormant or they are opened up to disease. If your trees are already budding (which I assume they are) I would wait until Winter. Unless it’s an emergency of course. I LOVE big trees – they add so much to a property in my opinion. I would do anything possible to save that tree – it could be gorgeous with a little love!
Great tip! They’re not budding at all – we’re barely coming out of winter, haha!
My husband cuts trees. I would suggest cutting the branch(es) that are hanging directly over your house first and then let it heal. Also take care of any dead branches etc. Also, read some websites of how arborists should make cuts. The websites are a great reference.
The 20′ (feet) should be over many years and not a few years. The reader with 30% cut down is a great suggestion. It allows the tree to heal properly. The tree won’t have leaves, but it will encourage the leaves to come out in other areas. It takes time and patience. My parents had a Japanese maple tree that was about 10 feet tall. They have been progressively trimming it and not it’s about 4 feet tall and full of beautiful red leaves.
Thanks for all these tips!
++ on the 30% comment. my neighbor, who retired from weyerhaeuser in a role managing their tree farms, consoled me when I was venting about a tree topping in our area. He cited the 30% figure as well.
We cut back an overgrown maple in our yard last year! It wasn’t as ginormous as yours, but it was pretty tall (maybe 35′), with all the leaves growing at the top, so it wasn’t very pretty or useful. It sounds like your arborist is recommending you do it in stages, which is what ours and my husband (a great gardener) agreed on. We lopped 4-5′ off of maybe 20-25% of the tallest branches last year to get the process going, and we’ve already had some amazing success getting regrowth lower on the tree (around 10-15′ vs. 30′). It looks so much better!
So helpful, thank you!
I work in landscape design and encounter similar problems to this all the time. I’m in central Arizona- so Maple trees and yews are not my expertise but I would definitely recommend finding a professional arborist you trust. I’m sure you found the right vet to care for your pups and tree care is no less specialized. Two thoughts to lessen the blow of temporary ugly tree. First- keep the maple cutoffs! You’ll have time to dry it out and then have it milled to make something special for your home. Second- if the Tree House were ever to have a treehouse it would be in that maple. Won’t it be nice to have the foliage lower and denser?
Thanks for this post weighing your landscape concerns. A garden doesn’t magically appear, it is the work of many seasons. I appreciate homeowners that take the time to build the pieces.
Love the suggestion of the cut offs! Thank you for your thoughtful response.
After looking at the photo of the whole tree again and noticing how tall it it, I started thinking that the maple might not be getting the right light where it is. We have a 90? year old maple in front of our house and although it is tall, it is also very round in shape. We’ve had dead limbs removed and a recent pruning where they removed complete branches but the height and shape are all just the way it’s grown naturally.
All that to say that your maple looks like it may be competing for light and space with the evergreen trees. We just had to have a very tall cedar and a cherry tree removed from behind our home because they were dying/dead. It did dramatically change the exposure of our house and our yard and I’m still not sure what to do about protecting our west facing backyard. But I knew that the big tree was dying and it was dangerous so we didn’t have a choice.
Not all maples are created equal. I have a masters degree in Horticulture and over 30 years of experience in midwestern botanical gardens. Large maples in Illinois are usually Sugar, or Hard Maple or they are Silver Maple. From the picture of the bark yours might be a silver Maple which would be unfortunate. Silver Maples are fast growing so they were widely planted but they are notoriously weak wooded and therefore short lived. They are very susceptible to storm damage and often split along that v-shaped, “included bark” where the major trunks fan out. If it is a Silver Maple I would consider removing it and starting over rather than invest in lots of expensive pruning on a tree that may be doomed anyway. Which way do the prevailing winds blow? At the very least have the limb over the house removed. If it is a Suger Maple I would go with a multi year pruning plan.. They are long lived trees and very worthwhile.
You guys are just the best. THANK YOU.
YES, this is exactly what I was going to say. Please check to see if it is a Silver Maple. We had one in our last house & they tend to rot and go down quickly. Ours was HUGE and it was going to cost something like $5k to take it down, but it was rotting inside in the main trunk and was going to be unavoidable within the next year or so. We ended up moving the next summer for completely unrelated reasons, but it was something we had started to prepare for. Our former neighborhood had a ton of silver maples that were all going to start coming down at the same time. It was our biggest and most mature tree in the back yard, but it had also started to send out more seeds than I had ever seen from a single tree, which our arborist told us is also a sign of a tree near the end of its life – it was trying to replace itself with seedlings.
You guys are giving us so much great questions to ask more arborists. We can’t thank y’all enough!
Trimming a tree will not prevent any other particular branch from breaking off in a storm, so that line of thought doesn’t hold up. A shorn tree always looks bad to me, boxwood yes, Maples no. This is giving me a bad feeling, and my house is surrounded with Maples that I do look at ruefully some days. I still would not want to pollard them. Inez, above, sounds very well versed in Maples, though.
Call your state agricultural extension service and get a list of aborists from them.
But, yes, you’re going to have to be brutal with the maple and just pat its trunk and soothingly tell it that this is all for its own good. And yours. One bad storm, and you’ll have branches crashing into your roof or onto your car or who knows what.
I second what Inez above said– find out what kind of maple. That maple is unlike anything I’ve seen here in Missouri-it’s like 8 feet of trunk and 100 feet of branch! And in the first realtor photo in the spring-I can barely see where the leaves are, does it provide much shade? And, does your neighbor on the left of the house (in the photo) have a similar tree? Good luck and thanks for sharing!
Also a note–time goes quickly as new parents-I wish I would have planted the tree I wanted in our yard 10 years ago but never did. It always felt futile, as if “I’ll have to wait 10 years to enjoy it!” I am shortsighted that way :) If it ends up you have to plant a new tree, just enjoy the process of selecting the perfect specimen, and watching it grow and give up on instant gratification–I wish I would have! Still no tree in our backyard :D
I agree with Inez – Sliver Maples are “messy” trees with shallow roots. They are always dropping branches and twigs in storms. If your tree is a Silver Maple you may be better off just removing it and not investing more time and dollars to save something that isn’t worth saving.
We’re pretty sure it is, but we’ll definitely confirm and be referring to all your comments!
We moved into our own “tree house” three years ago primarily for the large canopy. Forty year of ill planned plantings, neglected landscaping, and a drough meant we would need to take action in the yard. After the first year the drought ended and it was time to get started. Our city has 3 arborist on staff, and I ask for one to be sent to our property for advising as we are not allowed to remove trees without permission. He was able to confirm which trees were dying and which were not in good enough health to thrive. With no financial stake in his opinion and a fellow tree lover it gave us the confidence w needed to start interviewing different tree removal companies and comparing notes with their arborist. We had to remove several trees that I once would have considered deal breakers, but the property is better for it. Our canopy is healthier and more vibrant than before and the newly planted trees are well on their way. You can replant with as large a tree as your budget allows so do not fear cutting down trees if that is ultimately the best plan.
Such great advice, thank you, Paige!
Trim them up. We trimmed ours a few years ago and they do look funny for a while. But they did improve with time.
I find myself being offended by all this talk of silver maples not being “worth it.” My parents potted a silver maple that sprouted in our yard the year I was born, and it was permanently plated at their forever house when I was 5. Every home I have ever lived in including my forever house has had a silver maple. Granted none were planted as close to the house as yours is.
The more I learn about gardening the more I realize that there are no perfect plants just as there are no perfect people. Trees provide lovely shade, but lovely shade can impact the health of your lawn and limit your garden choices. A professional we just worked with said some of the plants we just had removed were very in style when they were planted in the 80s, but they pretty much never plant them now. Even the best gardeners using the best advice have plants die or languish. There is more risk in gardening than I would like. I am finding that with gardening, you may never know if you made the right decision, but you’re not alone.
Having a long term plan & a back up plan is what I’m working on now. We have a lovely, but girdled, Norway maple in our backyard that we will eventually die. I plan on planting a potted seedling this summer. I just have to decide what I want to eventually replace it with. You can walk around your neighborhood and find sprouted seedlings under most trees. That way you know tree will grow well in your environment. Most home owners will gladly let you take them. I’m not sure when I will need a new tree but if I plant one now I can save a bundle vs. buying a tree at a nursery. Who knows if it will work, but I will try.
This is awesome, right now yews are the bane of my existance. I have overgrown yews in front of my house that look like giant 10 foot by 10 foot geometric blobby shapes on top of long bare branches (one is a square and the other an oval).
Are you going to plant anything where the yews were, or just let your yard breathe for a bit?
We’re going to let our yard breathe for a while! We don’t have any immediate landscape plans, but we just couldn’t SEE the yard until those suckers were out of there. We’d rather have the dead space for now until we can come up with a great plan overall.
We had a tree almost that tall fall onto our roof in March and I can tell you wholeheartedly that it is NOT an experience to risk. We have another tree in our yard that was damaged in the fall and the tree service recommended it also come down. Every time the weather gets iffy I get anxious… I love our tall trees but I am not loving the anxiety and we’ll be cutting it down as soon as feasibly possible!
For all things garden related you should follow, contact etc Laura who has facebook, you tube, instagram with her Garden Answer channel … she can tell you everything you need/wish to know about plants, trees … all things garden related… she lives in Eastern Oregon… hope this helps….
We had a large silver maple in our backyard that had never really been maintained. We went with a company that was highly recommended. They chopped it to all hell. It was not pretty. I cried when I saw it. They took out all the branches that had shaded our deck because they said they were too close to the house. I was devastated. THAT SAID, it turned out FINE. The tree was no worse for the wear, and thinning it out a bit gave more light to other parts of the yard that allowed us to do better landscaping overall (and helped out garden). We’ll probably have to buy a different umbrella for the deck, but not the end of the world. It is not easy to see a tree looking terrible, but it’ll likely turn out OK.