Topping trees is an overused, crude pruning strategy where the Arborist cuts the ends off the significant branches, leaving blunt ends without any secondary branches remaining to assume dominance. Topping is not an acceptable pruning method and should rarely or never be used. Yet, it is widespread among inexperienced tree services. Topping trees not only diminishes the tree’s overall aesthetics but has serious negative repercussions for the tree’s structural integrity.
Here are four reasons why topping hurts trees and should be avoided.
Many homeowners or inexperienced tree care professionals may suggest topping as a way to “reduce the risk of tall, mature trees.” However, this approach is counterproductive, as topping increases the risk of the tree becoming unstable and failing. It’s important to note that most mature trees have extensive root systems that are well-equipped to maintain stability, so the topping is not a recommended pruning strategy
The sudden removal of copious amounts of foliage puts stress on the tree’s ability to provide itself with enough nutrients for the roots, branches, and trunk. Topping dramatically reduces the number of leaves on the tree, thus limiting how much energy the tree can produce and how much water it can release. Both of which are extremely important to the health of the tree. For example, Elm (Ulmus) trees absorb up to 250-300 gallons of water daily. If you were to top an Elm tree, you would only increase the likelihood of branch failure since it would not be able to release enough water to keep the limbs at a stable weight.
Disease & Decay
Topping usually produces poor cuts that do not heal properly. Proper pruning cuts allow for the tree to heal itself naturally in a process called compartmentalization. Compartmentalization is the process of the tree forming protective layers over a decaying or wounded area, such as a pruning cut. However, when a tree is topped, it does not allow for this natural healing process. Instead, it allows disease and decay to enter the tree just like an open wound on a person’s skin allows bacteria to enter the body.
Higher Cost to Maintain
Topping a tree results in an increased rate of water sprout growth, often up to three times the tree’s regular growth rate. This increased growth necessitates a more rigorous pruning schedule, ultimately leading to higher maintenance costs for the homeowner than if the tree had been correctly pruned. The required pruning frequency will vary among individual trees, but in general, adequately pruned trees will require trimming only every 2-5 years under normal circumstances.
How to top a tree without killing it?
There is no safe way to top a tree without putting the tree at severe risk for structural instability, disease, decay, and overall health decline. That being said, if you want to reduce the height of your tree(s), there is a safe pruning technique that can achieve this – crown reduction. Unlike topping, which involves cutting large branches indiscriminately, crown reduction involves careful and selective pruning of specific branches to achieve the desired reduction in height or spread of the tree’s canopy while maintaining the tree’s overall health and structure.
Will a tree grow back after topping?
Yes, a tree can grow back after topping, but the regrowth is often weaker, poorly attached, and structurally unsound. After being topped, a tree may produce numerous water sprouts, which are weak, poorly attached branches that overgrow and can be more susceptible to breakage, disease, and pests. The other outcome is that the tree will die.