Tree topping is a method often used to reduce the size or height of a tree. With this method, the top of some or all of the branches from a tree’s crown are cut straight off, leaving large stubs. Unfortunately, tree topping hurts trees, causing stress and irreparable damage. Given the harm it can cause, this is not a practice we recommend.
An Unhealthy and Unappealing Approach
Industry standards agree that tree topping is harmful. It destroys the natural shape and growth habits of a tree, which can never fully recover. Above all, a topped tree simply does not look good and the practice results in both short and long-term tree health issues.
With correct pruning, cuts are made just beyond the branch collar. A tree is able to close such wounds to “wall off” decaying tissue. On the other hand, with topping, heading cuts are made. This method leaves stumps or wounds that the tree has no ability to close over. These wounds result in exposed wood that will begin to decay. As a result, insects and disease can easily attack the tree, further compromising its health.
Another concern with topping is that it removes too much life-giving foliage from the tree. Removing too many leaves at once decreases the tree’s ability to produce energy through photosynthesis, ultimately starving the tree.
As the tree responds to the loss of leaves, it will send out quick-growing branches called watersprouts to compensate. These upright sprouts are spindly and weakly attached. The new growth breaks easily and, what does remain, becomes hazardous the larger it grows. Further, the thick re-growth makes the tree top-heavy and prone to storm damage. In this case, the original goal of topping was to reduce the tree’s height, but often watersprouts quickly grow back to the original size. Consequently, the result is a tree of the same size that is now more structurally unstable.
The decayed tissue caused by topping is another potential hazard. Rotted limbs are unsafe and more likely to break.
Preferred Alternatives to Tree Topping
The best method for avoiding topping is to start at the beginning by planting the right tree in the right place. Consider the full grown size and height of the species you are planting before making a selection.
Proper pruning from a young age will encourage a strong, healthy form. As the tree matures, reduction pruning can help provide clearance for limbs that are growing too close to structures or other trees. A Certified Arborist can provide guidance on how to best undertake crown reduction while maintaining the tree’s health and form. Some species respond poorly to this type of pruning and there may be times when it is better to remove a tree and replant with a species that is more appropriate for the space.
Ultimately, topped trees are unhealthy and pose a hazard. Periodic pruning over the life of a tree is healthier, safer and more cost-effective.