Tree topping is the process of randomly cutting tree branches down to stubs or to lateral branches that are not large enough to sustain the remaining limb. It might be a natural instinct when a tree gets too large for your yard, or the tree begins to interfere with other items in your landscaping. Yet if your intent isn’t to harm the tree, just merely reduce its size, tree topping may be doing more harm than good.
Why do people top trees?
People usually choose to top trees for a few common reasons.
• They need to reduce the size of a tree that is interfering with power wires
• They need to shorten a tree that is too tall near their home
• They want to prevent a tall tree from falling down and causing damage during a storm
In all cases, tree topping sounds like the perfect solution. Yes, your tree looks bare after it’s done. But it’s safer, right? After tree topping, your tree is left with weak branches, unstable limbs, and an unnatural appearance. It’s also more prone to breaking, which means it becomes an even greater hazard.
Tree Topping Stresses Trees
When you top a tree, you remove the core of a tree’s leaf-bearing crown, up to 100 percent of it in some circumstances. Trees survive and thrive through its leaves. Think of leaves as the digestive system of the tree. If you remove its core leaf structure, you are — in essence — starving the tree and removing its survival system.
When you remove its core leaf structure, you force rapid growth from the dormant bud system underneath. The tree needs food and it will do whatever it can to build its system back into place. If it can’t produce enough leaves to feed its internal structure, it will starve and die.
When it puts all of its energy into this process, it can leave other areas of the tree weak and vulnerable. That means open pruning wounds are more susceptible to insect and disease infestations. It may have less ability to fight off incoming problems, and potentially even produce chemical signals that attract some insects to its core.
Tree Topping Leads To Decay
When you prune a tree the right way, you cut branches back just beyond the branch collar at the point of attachment. When you do it correctly, the tree can close the wound and continue supporting the tree with a healthy delivery system. When cuts are made along a limb between lateral branches, it creates a stub that is difficult to close. When this wood is exposed to the environment, wood tissues begin to decay.
Normally a tree can close off this decaying tissue to save it from impacting the rest of the tree. By topping a tree, you are exposing it to multiple wounds and various stubs. The tree simply cannot keep up with its defense mechanism and has too many severe wounds to combat. The decay process is given a free path to travel wherever it desires.
Tree Topping Leads To Sunburn
A tree builds its canopy for the ability to receive the nutrients it needs to survive. That includes both water and sunlight. By topping a tree, you are eliminating its intake system and exposing the rest of the tree to an environment it’s not normally used to. When a tree experiences sunburn, it can damage the wood beneath the bark, split the bark from the tree, or even kill off weak branches.
Tree Topping Leads To Rapid, Weak Growth
When you cut off the canopy of a tree, it’s survival instinct kicks in to high gear. It quickly produces multiple shoots from every branch possible, reaching toward the sky to make up for the nutrients it’s lost. That means new shoots can overgrow to twenty feet or more over a one year period. These shoots often grow too quickly, leaving them weak and brittle. Unexpected storms can cause these branches to break, further damaging the tree.
Tree Topping Leaves Trees Ugly
There’s no denying that a stubby tree is anything but attractive. But even during the recovery period, it continues to be unappealing. Because the tree moves into recovery mode, it creates a hodgepodge arrangement of branches and leaves, doing anything it can to survive.
You’ll often find a dense ball of foliage develop near the base to counter the over-pruning process. It loses its natural beauty, shape, and size, and may never be able to take on that form again.
Tree Topping Is Expensive
We’re not just talking the costs of having the tree topped. There are many more costs to consider before you make your first cut.
• If your tree survives, the fast growth will leave your tree lopsided, weak, and out of shape. It will take more pruning to return it to a typical shape and size.
• It reduces your property values. Home buyers want landscaping that adds to the ambiance of a home, not that detracts from it.
• It increases your liability. A tree that’s been topped is more likely to break and cause damage to the property around it.
Is there a better way?
Yes. When you prune a tree the right way, you can reduce the tree’s height while keeping it healthy at the same time.
The easiest way is to plan right from the beginning. That new, little tree you’re about to plant won’t stay little forever. Look up and around the area where you’re digging the hole. Will it have problems in the coming years? If so, reconsider the place you’re digging the hole.
Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem if the tree is already decades old. Small branches should be removed back to their point of origin. If you need to cut back a larger limb, prune it back to a lateral branch that is large enough to assume the role. By pruning in this manner, you help preserve the natural form of the tree and leave it healthy enough to recover.
Sometimes the best solution is simply to remove the tree and replace it with a species more appropriate for the surrounding area.