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.
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.
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.