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Tree topping and other pruning tips | Evergreen Arborist

The annual tree topping or “butchering” season arrives each spring to the chagrin of arborists and tree service companies that discourage such practices. Tragically, most trees never should have been touched in the first place.

Who does it?  Everyone from homeowners to landscapers and tree service companies. Unfortunately, they do not understand the impacts on the long-term health, safety and appearance of trees.

What is topping?

It is the removal of a major portion of a deciduous tree’s leaf-bearing twigs and branches or the upper portion of a conifer such as a fir tree. A typical result is an ornamental tree with short, unattractive stubs on branches and the trunk. The conifer will look like its head was chopped off.

Topping is often done to reduce the size of a tree or to remove a perceived hazard. Usually, just the opposite will result. Growth will be accelerated and additional maintenance will often be required.

How do topped trees respond?

When most of the leaves and twigs that feed a tree are removed, it will attempt to restore the lost food manufacturing plant as fast as possible. Consequently, heavy pruning or topping stimulates sprouting as a tree enters a survival mode.

Some common species, like flowering plums, produce massive numbers of sprouts in response to severe topping. These spouts will grow at a much faster rate than normal – up to five feet or more a year.

Such rapid growth will return an ornamental tree to its original size within just a few years. Then a homeowner or landscaper is faced with pruning a massive number of new sprouts rather than naturally formed branches.

Conifers will generally attempt to form a new top. The branches closest to a cut or broken top will attempt to turn upward. Usually one branch will dominate, but sometimes multiple tops are created.

These new tops in conifers are weakly connected. As they become taller and heavier, they become more susceptible to breakage. Consequently, a topped fir or cedar tree actually becomes more hazardous than one that still has its original top.

Topping stresses deciduous trees and makes them more hazardous.

Some trees may die within a few years because of a lack of food reserves.  Over a longer period, others may no longer be able to defend themselves from insects or decay that find weakened trees or open wounds.

On deciduous trees, the weakly-attached new sprouts will increase in size and weight and become more susceptible to breakage during severe storms or heavy snows. Consequently, they will become more hazardous than if properly thinned.

Tree topping is ugly!

Trees form branching structures that are natural and pleasing to the eye. Topping destroys that natural form and does not go unnoticed.

Examples are plentiful along streets and in large parking lots. Many of the trees should have remained untouched because there were no nearby structures or overhead wires.  Butchered trees detract from the value of a landscape and can negatively impact the appearance of an entire neighborhood.

Topping is expensive

Heavily pruned ornamental trees may require trimming every year or so. Following each pruning, the prolific sprouting repeats itself and further stresses the tree. Repeated prunings cost dollars and may continue until either the tree or a homeowner or business gives up.

Proper tree pruning

The best job of pruning an ornamental tree is one where the tree looks as if very little has been done to it.

This is accomplished by careful thinning of branches that are crossing, pointing inward, are dead or that cause the shape of a tree to be out of balance. The offending branches should be cut where they join a larger branch or the trunk.

Careful thinning retains a tree’s natural shape, avoids stimulating massive sprouting and minimizes any stress.

Conifer trees should never be topped if possible.  A better option may be to remove an objectionable tree and replace it with a more appropriate one.

The bottom line is that topping or aggressive pruning should be discouraged. Usually the outcome is not what a property owner had envisioned.

Dennis Tompkins, the Evergreen Arborist, is a certified arborist, certified hazard tree assessor, Master Gardener and urban forester. He provides small tree pruning, pest diagnosis, hazardous tree evaluations, tree appraisals and other services for homeowners and businesses. Contact him at 253 863-7469 or e-mail to dlt@blarg.net. Website: evergreenarborist.com.

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