Stop and Think Before You Top
Topping trees is not a beneficial or proper pruning practice. Learn the real facts about common topping myths. Then find out about alternatives to topping, as well as ways to get involved in awareness about the dangers of this practice.
What is Topping?
Topping is an out-of-date pruning practice that removes large amounts of leaves and branches from a tree's crown reducing the tree's size. Topping involves indiscriminate (internodal) cuts without regard to tree health or structural integrity.
Topping is no longer an acceptable pruning practice. Topping is also known as heading, stubbing, dehorning, poodling, tipping, rounding over, etc.
Topping the Tree
Starves the tree
The Many Myths of Tree Topping
Myth: Topping Rejuvenates the Tree
Truth: Actually, topping removes large amounts of energy-converting foliage from the tree. This forces the tree to tap energy reserves to replace lost foliage, resulting in a weakened tree that is more susceptible to attack by pests and disease.
Myth: Topping Makes the Tree Fuller
Truth: In fact, many trees will send out or “flush” large amounts of foliage to replace the leaves removed. New growth is dense and may appear to be fuller. Unfortunately, new branches are poorly attached and easily break, and topped branches are open for attack by pests and decay.
Myth: Topping is Inexpensive
Truth: A topped tree requires more maintenance due to increased pruning cycles. Ultimately, the tree will die prematurely, reducing property values, and will need to be removed and replaced.
Myth: All My Neighbors Top, So it Must Be Good For The Tree
Truth: People once thought the earth was flat but we now know that’s not the case. Research has shown proper pruning techniques work with the trees biology, not against it. Topping is one of the most harmful things to do to a tree. In fact, after planting too deep, topping is the next major cause for tree decline and death.
Myth: The New Growth is Stronger
Truth: The new growth after topping usually grows faster, but is not stronger. Instead, new growth is poorly attached and easily breaks off, increasing storm damage and personal liability.
Myth: The Tree Casts Too Much Shade
Myth: The Tree Got Too Big
Truth: The canopy of a tree may be thinned with proper pruning to allow more sunlight through, while not severely damaging the tree.
Truth: Trees never get too big. Trees have a genetic disposition to be a certain size while environmental factors affect the potential size it's our expectation of the tree that is too small. If tree size is a concern, consider selection of smaller trees for a better choice.
What's Wrong With Topping?
It Starves a Tree
Topping reduces the tree's ability to feed itself. Trees require a large leaf surface area to provide food for maintenance and growth. Topping cuts off a major portion, if not all, of the tree's food-making potential from the leaves.
It Doesn't Work
Topping stimulates undesirable and unattractive growth. While removing most of the buds that would form a normal branch system, topping often stimulates regrowth of dense, unattractive, upright branches called watersprouts just below the pruning cut. Watersprout regrowth is vigorous. A topped tree will rapidly attempt to return to its original height, but will lack its original form. The vigorous regrowth also depletes the tree's stored food reserves which makes the tree more susceptible to insect or disease infestations and less resistant to environmental stresses such as drought, pollution, etc.
Topping leaves many large wounds. Pruning is wounding a tree and trees don't heal like humans do. Trees attempt to seal over wounds, but the process can be slow, especially when their food-making capacity has been reduced or removed and reserves depleted. The wounds left from topping are many and even slower to seal, therefore leaving the tree more vulnerable to insect attacks and fungal decay. An invasion by either can spread into the trunk eventually leading to the death or necessary removal of the tree.
Topping creates a hazard tree. Weakened stubs left behind by topping are more prone to wind and storm breakage because they generally begin to die back or decay. Re-growth is also prone to failure as the growth gets larger and heavier because the new growth is not physiologically attached the same way the natural branch is, leading to more failures as the weight bcomes too much to support. Topping creates a hazard tree. Weakened stubs left behind by topping are more prone to wind and storm breakage because they generally begin to die back or decay. Re-growth is also prone to failure as the growth gets larger and heavier because the new growth is not physiologically attached the same way the natural branch is, leading to more failures as the weight bcomes too much to support.
Topping is disfigurement. Unattractive branch stubs, conspicuous pruning cuts, and a broom-like branch re-growth replace natural beauty and form. Topping can reduces real estate value of trees by 20-100%. A correctly pruned tree increases value at each pruning.
Once a tree is topped, it must continue to be topped and eventually must be removed when it dies or the owner gives up. This will cost more money in the long run. Proper pruning actually improves the health and beauty of a tree, needs less maintenance and costs less.
Why Would Someone Top a Tree?
Some homeowners and unprofessional tree care practitioners top trees whenever the trees reach an undesireable height. For some, they believe they are permanently reducing the height of the tree and reduceing the storm hazard of falling braches, when in fact, as we learned above, topping has the opposite effect. Trees are genetically programmed to be a certain height and topping will not acheive long-term reduction in height. People also top trees when they interfere with infrastructure such as utility wires, buildings, or views.
It is best to consider one of the two following options: Shift perception of the tree as being too tall to being a tree being a tree. If the kind of tree you have is not a tree you can live with as is, then consider removal and replacement with a tree that better suits the site as well as your needs and expectations. For more information about tree selection and placement, please view our Right Tree, Right Place page.
What Are Some Alternatives to Topping?
- Plant the right tree in the right place. Carefully select the appropriate species before you plant a tree. Bear in mind the mature size of the tree and do not plant trees that will cause future conflicts with infrastructure, utilities, structures or views. Young trees should also be properly trained. Consider removal and replacement for existing previously topped trees-especially if they are mature and have been topped several times. If the tree is located under power lines that go from pole to pole, Tacoma Power may remove your tree by request. Contact Tacoma Power's Treeline at (253) 502-8729 or email.
- Contact an ISA Certified Arborist to properly prune your trees to allow them to realize their full potential for health and beauty in the landscape. Proper pruning can remove excessive growth without the problems topping creates. If you have your trees properly pruned, you should not need to have them pruned again for 10-15 years; conversely, if you top your trees you may have to prune your trees every few years.
- Enhance views by “windowing” or “crown raising.” “Windowing” is defined as removing several branches symmetrically within an area of the tree. By carefully choosing which branches to cut, and making proper pruning cuts, you can leave a window in a tree that provides a fully framed view and also maintain the health of the tree. “Crown raising,” or “skirting,” is the removal of lower branches to open up a view. To maintain a healthy tree, never remove more than 25 percent of the canopy of a tree at one time.
- Have an ISA Certified Arborist remove dead, dying, diseased, crowded, weakly-attached, or low-vigor branches through “crown cleaning.”
- Consider “crown reduction” when a mature tree’s height absolutely must be reduced, such as to correct utility line conflicts. Crown reduction is accomplished by removing larger branches at the top or side of the tree. Branches are removed by using proper pruning cuts above a lateral branch that will increase in size after cutting. Crown reduction is also known as “drop crotch pruning.”
How Can You Get Involved?
To maximize the community benefits of our urban forest, we need to take care of our existing trees and plant more trees. There are many ways you can help make your community a healthier and more beautiful place.
- Contact us to schedule a presentation to give to your group.
- Print out these posters from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to display in your break area, business window or other high traffic area. No printer? Contact us for already printed copies of these posters or bookmarks.
- Want to go paper-less? Use the digital versions of the DNR's anti-topping campaign material, include in your signature line at the bottom of your email, add to your blog or place on your business website.
- Include information in your newsletter or publication about reasons to not top a tree. We can provide a short article for your publication or you can use the examples provided by the DNR (two blog examples, one press release example and one editorial article example).
- Hire an ISA Certified Arborist that is licensed and bonded, and ask plenty of questions about their business practices.