If you own a home, I’m sure you know that there are times when a tree on your property may need to be pruned or trimmed. Branches can get in the way of utility lines, hang over your roof, or become broken and stressed in a storm or after a rough winter. It’s up to you as the homeowner to make the decision as to when a tree poses an unacceptable risk and needs to be pruned. 

But, before you hire a professional, you must know one thing: there are right and wrong ways to prune a tree. Unfortunately bad techniques are still widely and commonly used. The worst of these is called tree topping. 

Tree topping makes trees ugly
An ugly, topped tree in my neighborhood. Topping destroys the beautiful, natural form of the tree and makes it more prone to disease.

Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed tree topping in my local neighborhood more and more. Now, this method of pruning has completely taken over. And it needs to stop. And I think all we need to do is learn a little bit about pruning before we hire someone. Then, maybe we can save some trees. Knowledge is power my friends.

What is tree topping?

Tree topping, also referred to as heading, tipping, hat-racking and rounding over, is the most harmful tree pruning practice known. “Topping” a tree involves cutting branches back to stubs or lateral branches that can’t support the tree’s structure. Not only is topping ugly, it stresses the tree, leading to decay and making the tree MORE likely to break or fall over due to inclement weather.

Recently topped trees
These three trees in my neighborhood have been recently topped. Within the next year, rapid & weak branch growth will occur at the points where they were topped. They are now more prone to damage and decay.

Harmful effects of tree topping

Despite years of literature explaining its harmful effects, topping remains a common practice. 

Topped trees are more vulnerable to disease & decay

Topping can remove 50-100% of a tree’s leaf-bearing crown (Source)… which is where the tree gets food and nutrients from. When a tree is topped, this canopy of leaves can be destroyed for up to 6 months in temperate climates.

When leaves are removed, the tree’s dormant buds are activated; i.e. basically the tree goes into survival mode as it tries to make more leaves ASAP. This forces rapid growth of multiple shoots below each cut. This can actually kill the tree if it doesn’t have enough energy to do so. At the very least it will weaken the tree.

A research study in the Journal of Arboriculture found that topped trees in southern Illinois communities were 3 times more frequently classified as likely to fail structurally than trees not subjected to topping (Karlovich, D.A, et al., 2000). Another study in the Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science which found that orange trees that were topped each year grew at a faster rate but produced less fruit (Wheaton, T.A., et al., 1995).

Weak regrowth from topped tree pruning
Here’s two photos of trees in my own neighborhood that have been topped in recent years (where the red circles are). Once topped, the tree grows rapidly in an attempt to produce leaves. The result is thin and straggly chutes springing from the topped wood. Not a good look and definitely not healthy for the tree.

When the leaves of the tree are removed, it also causes other problems. The leaves protect the tree branches and trunk. And now, they are exposed to high levels of sunlight and heat that cause sunburn. Sunburn can destroy the tissue beneath the tree’s bark which causes cankers, bark splitting and branch death. Not good.

To make things even worse… a weakened tree with multiple large, open pruning wounds quickly leads to decay. So, by pruning the tree to “save it” and not cut it down, actually makes it more dangerous. Topped trees are more likely to die from decay and their branches are more likely to break and cause property damage.  

The tree also becomes vulnerable to insect and disease infestations. Some insects are actually attracted to the chemical stress signals released by trees in crisis.

Tree topping makes trees UGLY

Tree topping is so dumb
Topped trees are butt ugly. Seriously… who came up with this?

Not only does it cause all of the severe damage I mentioned above… but trees that are topped are but ugly. I’m sorry, but I can’t understand how someone would do this and who actually would think this makes a tree look good.

Topping destroys the natural form and branching structure of a tree. And isn’t that what’s so wonderful about trees in the first place? They grow in a beautiful variety of shapes and sizes, presenting their canopy of leaves to the sun, creating shade and releasing oxygen into the air.  A tree that has been topped can never fully regain its natural form. It can’t be undone.

a whole yard of topped trees
Heartbroken is the word you could use to describe me when I first rounded the corner to see this once beautiful grove of trees destroyed. I’ve counted 11 topped trees on their property… and I’m sick about it. What is wrong with people?

Improper pruning is expensive

The cost of topping a tree is not limited to only the job cost. If the tree survives, it will likely require corrective pruning within a few years. If it dies, you’ll need to pay to have it removed. Healthy, well-maintained trees can add 10-20% to your property value. 

But, disfigured trees that have undergone topping will actually reduce your property value. And, because tree topping is considered to be an unacceptable method of pruning, you may be liable in a court of law if the tree causes damage to another person or property. 

All the more reason to make sure that you do this right the first time. So let’s talk a little bit about the right way to prune a tree.

The right way to prune a tree

While there are certainly times that trees must be reduced in height or spread, or maintained for your own safety, there are correct ways to do it that will preserve the natural form of the tree. 

  • First, prune branches that are damaged, diseased and/or crossing one other.
  • Small branches should be removed back to their point of origin; don’t leave a stub. 
  • If a larger limb must be shortened, it should be pruned back to a lateral branch that is large enough to assume the terminal role. This means that the new leading branch needs to be at least ⅓ the diameter of the limb being removed.

Hiring a professional tree trimmer

If you are hiring someone to prune your tree, it’s always good practice to meet with them first. Ask them how they plan to prune the tree and if they can see any problematic areas such as disease or decay on your tree. Also ask them for some examples of their pruning work that you can take a look at. Hopefully, using the pictures in this post you’ll be able to identify if any of these trees have been topped. 

It’s always best to hire an arborist for the job. Although this can be more expensive than just the local tree pruning guy, a certified arborist will know how and where to make the needed cuts to reduce the crown and help develop a stronger and more beautiful tree. In the end, you’ll be left with peace of mind and a healthy tree that will bring you great joy for years to come.

When to remove a tree

If large cuts need to be made when pruning a tree, it may not be able to close over and compartmentalize the wounds. This will ultimately lead to decay and a lot of the problems discussed earlier. So, sometimes the best solution is to remove the tree and replace it with a species that is more appropriate for the site.

If you need to choose a new tree for your property, here are some resources to help you:

Wrapping Up

Tree topping removes 50-100% of a tree’s leaf-bearing crown… which causes a lot of problems for the tree including disease, decay, destruction of the tree’s natural form, future expense and much more. Although topping is one of the most harmful pruning practices known, it’s also a common practice in many areas… including my own home town. 

If you need to reduce the size of a tree or get some branches taken care of, be sure to meet with the tree trimmer first. If you have the money, hiring an arborist is always the safest way to get this done properly. They will be able to tell you whether you can prune the tree successfully or if it needs to be removed completely. By following these tips and knowing what to look for, you should have much more success when the time comes to prune your beloved trees.

Stop tree topping - save a tree
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