A Texas Chainsaw Massacre—on Trees

Martie Young
Adams County Master Gardener

This is a bad rap for ‘tree trimmers’ and some ‘landscapers.’ I put those two terms in quotes because some of these people are not following good gardening practices. People who want to trim your trees by giving them crew cuts are harming perfectly good trees. This practice is known as tree topping. It has been frowned upon by arborists for many, many years. Topping is the process whereby a tree is cut back to a few large branches. After 2 to 3 months, regrowth on a topped tree is vigorous, bushy and upright. Topping seriously affects the tree’s structure and appearance. The weakly attached regrowth can break off during severe wind or rain storms. Topping may also shorten the life of a tree by making it susceptible to attack by insect and disease. You should know that the leaves on a tree are its lifeblood--topping a tree reduces the total leaves to such an extent that it harms the tree.

Pruning is the removal or reduction of certain plant parts that are not required, that are no longer effective, or that are of no use to the plant. It is done to supply additional energy for the development of flowers, fruits, and limbs that remain on the plant. Pruning essentially involves removing plant parts to improve the health, landscape effect, or value of the plant. Once the objectives are determined and a few basic principles understood, pruning primarily is a matter of common sense and common sense dictates that no untrained person should be in a tree with a chainsaw!

Thinning, as a method of pruning, is a better means of reducing the size of a tree or rejuvenating growth. In contrast to topping, thinning removes unwanted branches by cutting them back to their point of origin. Thinning conforms to the tree’s natural branching habit and results in a more open tree, emphasizing the branches’ internal structure. Thinning also strengthens the tree by forcing diameter growth of the remaining branches.

If you do need work done on your tree, contact a certified arborist (you can find information on the internet). Certified arborists are knowledgeable about tree care and pruning procedures. Your goal should be to make your tree look as if it had not been pruned and to emphasize the form and structure of the tree. You may object to a certified arborist because of cost, but keep in mind that pruning doesn't have to be done frequently whereas topping, in some cases, may be done every year.

Maybe you are a new homeowner and are thinking about planting one or more trees. If you live in a townhouse or a community of houses that are close together, don’t plant any trees that will grow large—oaks, maples, sweet gums, or any of the trees that you would admire in a forest or a large arboretum. These trees can grow from 50 to 100 feet tall and are impractical to say the least.

Plant a tree that will fit your yard. Find a small tree to plant. Suggestions may be dogwood varieties, dwarf evergreens, smoke tree, serviceberry, redbud, or the many forms of Japanese maples that have a growth habit of around 25 to 30 feet high. Some people want to prune a tree as soon as it is planted--this is also frowned upon. The leaves are what produce growth by their interaction with the sun. Leave as much of the entire leaf surface as possible to manufacture food that will build a larger root system. Roots will be larger after one year if the tree is left unpruned. It is often recommended that you wait two or three years before doing any pruning and then, only to improve the shape of the tree.

Don't plant a tree with a predicted growth of over 50 feet. Do the research yourself to learn the shape and predicted height of a tree (or ask a master gardener). Avoid planting trees that grow really fast--sugar maple comes to mind. If it is a fast grower, it probably is more susceptible to breakage or early death.

I'm sure you have seen topped trees in your own neighborhood! They will definitely reduce the value of a person's property. Once a tree is topped, it is difficult to bring it back to its desired shape.

Finally, there are many landscape companies that adhere to good pruning practices; when you are looking for a company be sure you ask questions, view examples of their work, and be specific as to what you want your own tree to look like after it's pruned.

I will assume you have decided to take my advice in the article above and not top your trees. Here are some suggestions of what to do instead. Late winter is a good time to prune trees, so you might want to contact some pruning companies to get opinions or estimates--two or three companies should be sufficient and most likely their inspection will be free. At this time of year there is plenty of time to make a decision of which company to use. When the representative comes to look at your trees, ask plenty of questions--what will the tree look like after it is pruned is the most important one. So is cost; so is frequency of pruning. If your tree shows signs of disease or is a danger to the neighborhood, possibly it should come down. Think carefully about that since it will take a while for a new tree to grow.

Having a tree cut down does give you an opportunity to choose a new tree that might better fit your yard or neighborhood. The sudden appearance of too much sun on your house will affect your heating and cooling costs. It may also affect your plantings of annuals or perennials. Those ferns that were happily growing in the shade will no longer do well. That lawn that just wouldn't grow in the deep shade may now flourish in the sun. Try to decide where to put a new tree based on how the sun shines--if it heats up the living space of your house find a tree that will help provide shade especially in the afternoon. Or if you have a new house in a development you may need a tree, or more than one, to shade that sunny patio that may be unusable in the heat of summer. Remember to choose a tree that will grow well in the sun so that it will flourish and make some shade for you quickly. Some small trees (dogwood or redbud) are considered understory trees and like some shade. Medium-size trees generally will do fine in hot afternoon sun. Medium trees are from 20 to 50 or so feet tall. Usually trees larger than 50 feet may be too large for a yard. You can choose evergreens or deciduous, flowering or colorful leaves. Fruit is a possibility but may be too messy for a yard.

The necessity of cutting down a tree is a worst-case scenario even though it might make you temporarily happy not having any leaves to rake--but leaves are a source of fertilizer for your yard and should be stockpiled and used as compost. Next to topping trees, bagging leaves to be hauled away is almost as bad! The leaves of one large shade tree can be worth at least $50 worth of plant food and humus. Leaves contain twice as many minerals as manure. Can you find an out-of-the-way spot in your yard for a 3 x 3 compost bin? If you can shred your leaves first (running over them with a mower is easy) they will break down even faster and by spring are generally ready to use by distributing the new compost over your planting beds. There are lots of sites on the internet to explain composting if you want to get serious about it.

I hope I have inspired you to look at trees in a new way. Trees are the backbone of a well-established garden. They are the first thing you should plant at your new house because they take the longest to grow. Once you have established a plan, start with your tree or trees; then choose shrubs based on whether they need sun or shade; finally you can choose perennials and annuals, again taking into consideration the amount of sun or shade they need. And one day in the not too distant future you will look out your windows and see a garden waiting to be enjoyed.

Read other articles about tree care

Read other articles by Martie Young