Topping Trees–A great way to waste your money

From time to time we have customers ask us to “top” top their trees. Most of these customers are older customers and so is the practice of “topping” trees. Topping trees used to be common, but as we learned more about the biology of trees we learned this was not a good practice.

What is Topping

Topping is a subpar practice in the tree care industry that is typically used to reduce the height of the tree and the risk of failure. Trees are cut indiscriminately leaving stubs with no lateral branches to assume the role of a terminal shoot. Topping removes 50-100 of the foliage in the tree. Topping a tree is wrong 99% percent of the time, however, there may be a few limited exceptions where it might be the best option if no other options exist. For example, if you have a partially dead branch that needs to be retained or a storm-damaged tree, topping might be the only answer.

The middle tree was topped. Topping removes 50-100% of the foliage in a tree. Lions-tailed tree to the right

Why is Topping Bad

  • Topping stresses trees
    • Trees struggle to produce the required amount of energy when more than 25-30 of a green canopy is taken out of a tree.
    • The reduced energy leads to decreased defenses which increases the chances of insect attacks and disease.
  • Topping increase decay
    • Topping creates large wounds on the branches of trees that do not compartmentalize well.
  • Some trees cannot tolerate being topped
    • Certain species of trees or trees that are already stressed may be killed outright by topping.
  • Topped trees are susceptible to sunburn
    • When trees leaves are removed the UV rays beat down on the branches causing sunburn which kills cells and creates wounds.
    • This type of wound can be frequently seen from utility pruning.
  • Topped trees are ugly
    • Trees that have been topped lose their natural beauty and form and once topped they can never be regained.
  • Trees respond negatively
    • Shoots grow rapidly as a stress response. These shoots will grow super fast and can be easily broken, especially when they are attached to a decayed branch.
  • Topping Creates a Higher Risk
    • Trees send out shoots that can grow up to 20ft per year. These branches are weakly attached to the tree initially and can beak in storms.
This is a topped branch that has resprouted and grown some very large shoots (see branch in back left of picture). These branches are now growing on branched would decay in them increasing the risk of failure.
result of lions-tailing and topping
Right, topped tree after one year. The tree to the left is a lions-tailed tree that broke in a storm.

There is a Better Way

If your tree risk needs to be mitigated by a height or width reduction, the proper pruning cut is referred to as a reduction cut. With a reduction cut, the goal is to keep the tree as close to natural form as possible. Instead of just cutting the branch anywhere, branches should be cut back to a lateral branch that is at least 1/3 the size of the original branch. Reduction cuts are a sustainable way of pruning trees that reduce tree stress, and risk while maintaining the tree’s natural structure and reducing risk.

If your trees need pruning contact Wellnitz Tree Care.

Topped tree after 2 years of growth. The tree has almost grown back to the original height before topping. Instead of healthy branches, the new branches are supported by branches with pockets of decay.
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