Tree Topping – Please Don’t!

Connie Holland
Adams County Master Gardener

(2/23) A recent sighting of butchered trees has prompted me to get on my soapbox about the misguided practice of tree topping. Topping is perhaps the most ugly and harmful tree pruning practice known. It is the most serous injury one can inflict on a tree. In many cities, topping is banned due to potential hazards created by a declining topped tree. Yet, despite more than twenty-five years of literature and seminars explaining its harmful effects, topping unfortunately remains a common bad practice. Often one person tops their trees and then a neighbor follows suit falling prey to this awful practice resulting in an epidemic of ugly and eventually dying trees in the neighborhood. This article explains why topping is not an acceptable technique and hopes to raise awareness that this is not a good thing.

Topping is the indiscriminate cutting of tree branches to ugly stubs. Other terms for this undesirable practice are heading, tipping, stubbing or rounding over. A better term might be "hacking". The most common reasons for topping are to reduce tree size or eliminate lots of leaves. People fear that large trees may pose a hazard to their home. Topping is in fact not a viable method of height reduction. In fact, topping may make a tree more hazardous in the long term as the tree declines and eventually dies from the topping.

Topping often removes 100 percent of the leaf-bearing crown. Leaves are the food providers for a tree. The trunk and root structures of a tree develop in relationship to the food provided by the leaves. Removing all the leaves deprives roots of their food source. Without adequate food, the tree can be seriously weakened and eventually can die a slow declining death over a few years. This severity of cutting triggers a survival mechanism. The tree activates latent buds, forcing the rapid growth of multiple sucker shoots below each cut. The tree needs to put out this new crop of leaves as soon as possible to generate food, so the new growth is spindly skinny stems.

This survival mechanism comes at great expense to the tree. These shoots develop from buds near the surface of the old branches and shoots are anchored only in the outermost layers of the parent branches. The new shoots grow quickly, as much as 20 feet in one year in some species. Unfortunately, these shoots are prone to breaking, especially during windy conditions. The irony is that while the goal was to reduce the tree’s height to make it safer, it has been made more hazardous than before. If the goal was to reduce leaf fall, one still gets a lot of leaves anyway.

A stressed tree is more vulnerable to insect and disease infestations. Large, open wounds expose the sapwood and heartwood to attack. Some insects are attracted to the chemical signals distressed trees release. The preferred place to make a pruning cut is just beyond the branch collar, the branch’s point of attachment to the trunk. Special cells in these areas are biologically equipped to close such a wound provided the tree is healthy enough and the wound is not too large. Indiscriminate cuts along the lateral branch of a tree create stubs with wounds that the tree cannot close. Exposed wood tissues suffer sunscald and provide decay organisms a free path to move down through the branches.

The natural structure of a tree is a biological wonder of nature. Trees form a variety of shapes and growth habits, all with the same goal of presenting their leaves to the sun in a symmetrical pattern. Topping leaves ugly stubs and certainly destroys the natural form of a tree. Without leaves, a topped tree appears disfigured and mutilated. With the sucker growth, it appears as a dense ball of skimpy foliage, lacking its original grace. A tree that has been topped will never fully regain its natural form. Its dense ball of foliage becomes more susceptible to wind damage as opposed to the open nature of a natural shaped tree.

Healthy, well-maintained trees add financial value to a property. A topped tree reduces property value. Disfigured, topped trees are considered undesirable and the expectation of tree decline and removal due to this practice is often considered an impending expense.

Pruning large trees can be dangerous. If pruning involves working above the ground or using power equipment, it is best to hire a professional arborist. An arborist will determine the type of pruning necessary to improve the health, appearance, and safety of your trees. Avoid using the services of any person or tree company that advertises topping. Knowledgeable arborists and tree companies know that topping is harmful to trees and will not hack the top out of your trees.

Topping is a bad short-term solution with long-term consequences, so please do not top your trees.

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