5 Reasons to Never Top Your Trees

Tree Topping Plant Trimming Pruning

Do you ever wonder why a tree didn’t grow well, looked deformed, fell over, or entirely died? There are certainly combinations of reasons for this happening, but according to many horticulturalists, one of the top reasons is improper pruning. Specifically, a damaging practice called “Topping”. Topping involves cutting away a large section of the top of a tree’s crown, or all the leafing branches across the top half of the tree. This is often justified by the need to reduce the overall size of a tree. The leader (or the vertical stem) and the upper primary limbs (known as scaffold branches) on a mature tree are often cut back to a level height- This can prove damaging or fatal to many trees, or severely decrease their longevity.

Why not to Top a tree:

  1. shootsWeak, unhealthy shoots and mini limbs without a central leader will sprout as a response to the trauma. The tree becomes weak, top heavy and inevitably the wrong shoots or stems will dominate the tree. The limbs will be weakened both aesthetically and structurally. Eventually, a tree trimmer will need to come back and remove most of the shoots costing more time and expense than doing it right the first time.
  2. Shock, Trauma and starvation can occur as the leaves that provide food and shade to the rest of the tree are removed the recovery process is slowed. Without protective leaves, the tree lacks nutrition and often the new growth and bark are scalded by the sun. The tree’s energy goes into recovery, self-protection, and producing unnatural new growth while branching.
  3. Large wounds create a magnet for insects and disease. The shock and starvation that occurs reduces the trees natural ability to fend off insects, disease and decay. Once decay hits a tree, there is no way of stopping it.
  4. Weak Limbs and a weak tree can be dangerous. The meeting point of the limbs and trunk is called a “crotch”. Crotches growing at wrong angles and with competing branches create weak forks and brittle wood that breaks easily. Unhealthy trees and limbs are much more likely to fall down in times of stress or inclement weather
  5. Increased cost, increased liability and lost aesthetic value. Though it may be tempting to take that low cost of the simple large cut, certainly more money will be invested in repair of the tree, removal of dead or broken limbs ,and damages caused by the inopportune falling of limbs and trees on items of value. The value a beautiful tree can add to a property cannot be taken for granted, and the cost of replacing a tree of size may be impossible if not very expensive.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, as some trees that are often used as hedges respond well to topping if we want to keep them as hedges. If a tree is to be kept like a large shrub at a limited size, topping is actually necessary, but if the tree is to grow into its natural state as a tree, then the above rules apply.

So, what is the alternative when the tree is too large? Crown reduction is the preferred pruning method, because it conserves natural appearance, decreases need for extensive pruning, and limits stress.

Read our next article on crown reduction!

– Mark Meahl