Do NOT Top Your Trees

by Betsy Washington


I have seen a number of tree services “top” or mutilate beautiful and healthy trees around Lake Barcroft.  I certainly hope Victoria’s beautiful old trees were correctly pruned, but I thought it might be helpful to get the word out about the unacceptable practice of ‘topping’.

The following quote is taken from an informative brochure on Tree Care, “Trees are Good” published by the International Society of Arborists.

"Topping is perhaps the most harmful tree pruning practice known. Yet, despite more than 25 years of literature and seminars explaining its harmful effects, the unacceptable practice of tree topping remains a common practice."

Topping is the indiscriminate cutting of multiple tree branches in the crown back to stubs or weak lateral branches.  Topping is most commonly done to reduce the size of tree thereby supposedly reducing the hazard of trees that have grown too large for small residential properties. Topping should always be avoided. 

Any tree company that advertises or recommends topping a tree should be avoided!

Topping may seem like a quick and inexpensive way to decrease the size of a large tree but it is actually more expensive in the long run. An incorrectly pruned or topped tree will require remedial pruning within a few years and will continue to need remedial pruning throughout its life.  It will be much more susceptible to storm damage insect and diseases and may even die and need removal.  Plus a topped tree is ugly!  Topping destroys the natural form of a tree and leaves unsightly branch stubs and weak congested growth, and can never be reversed or outgrown.

  1.  Topping shocks the tree and causes latent buds below the cut to burst into rapid growth resulting in multiple weak shoots.  Unlike normal branches that develop in a strong socket of overlapping wood tissues deep within the tree, these new shoots are anchored in superficial outer layers of wood and are inherently weak and subject to storm damage.  These can be hazardous, causing branch failure that can lead to charges of negligence.
  2. Topping reduces the canopy by 50 to 100 percent, reducing photosynthesis and literally starving the tree. 
  3. Topping exposes shaded parts of the canopy to intense sunlight which can “burn” the tissue beneath the bark causing cankers, bark splitting and death and fall of branches.
  4. Topped trees are stressed and emit chemical signals that attract insect pests and disease organisms.  The multiple open wounds allow decay organisms to gain entry into the tree.
  5. And last, topped trees are ugly!  Topping destroys the natural form of a tree and the architecture of the tree is ruined by the unsightly stubs and multiple weak branches that develop at the stubs.

In the long run it pays to use a trained and licensed arborist. If in doubt, consider hiring a consulting tree preservationist or arborist to evaluate your tree and recommend appropriate care. A consultation is usually quite reasonably priced and since healthy mature trees that are well maintained can add 10 – 20% to your property value, they can be worth their weight in gold! A trained arborist will come in and assess the overall health and structure of your tree and remove weak or injured branches throughout the crown in a way that enhances your tree, opens the crown to light and air circulation and will cut back to proper crotch angles taking advantage of your trees natural healing hormones, creating a architecturally beautiful, sound tree.  A win-win situation.