TOPPING: AN UNETHICAL PRACTICE
“I just need the tops cut out of my trees” is something we get a lot. “Topping” trees is a service we are often asked to provide by well meaning tree owners, but the fact of the matter is that this service is bad for both the trees involved as well as the clients themselves.
Topping a tree is not an industry accepted pruning service. It does not make a tree safer. It creates a more hazardous tree in many ways:
Topping stresses a tree to the point of shock. When a tree loses too much foliage and living branches at once, energy is severely impacted. For one, leaves that create food for the tree are lost; furthermore, energy reserves stored in the wood of branches/stems are taken away.
Tremendous energy is used up as a response. In order to replenish the leaves in hopes of restoring food production, energy first has to be put into new stems which will emerge as water sprouts. Additionally, large amounts of energy are spent trying to compartmentalize (wall off) the large topping wounds.
Wood decay organisms will immediately begin to enter and produce cavities at the wound points. Despite the tree’s best efforts to wall off the wounds and prevent decay, topping cuts are so severe that a tree cannot effectively compartmentalize them in time.
The energy-depleted tree is much more vulnerable to diseases and other pests. Topping is so stressful to a tree that it can in some cases single-handedly kill it, but even if the tree survives, it is much weaker than before and open to attack from parasites. Any further stressors experienced after topping (e.g. drought, soil compaction, flooding, insect infestation, etc.) are more likely to send the tree into a mortality spiral (to an untimely death).
Root rot and butt rots are more likely to set in. The main reason people want their trees topped is usually for fear of it falling on their house, but ironically, topping a tree increases this likelihood in the long run. Most trees that fail at ground level in high winds have some form of root or butt rot. The energy depletion associated with topping makes a tree more vulnerable to these decay organisms.
The water shoots described above will get very tall and very heavy… very fast. A topped tree is likely to be the same height as before within a span of a few years. The new shoots are crowded on the topping stubs and do not form good wood attachments. This problem is made even worse by the included bark that forms between them. Additionally, the new stems usually have considerable decay underneath and between them (decay that started because the topping cut was too big to wall off). As they get taller and heavier, they are much more prone to breakage than a crown of natural branches would have been.
This silver maple was topped and is more hazardous now than if it had been left alone or properly pruned. Note the crowded nature of the stems and the included bark between their unions.
Please do not top your trees. Topped trees are ugly and hazardous. At Blue Oak, we believe the solution to our community’s misguided tree-topping mania is in client education and awareness. There are much better alternatives to this malpractice.
Proper pruning is different than topping and can include crown reduction and/or crown thinning to achieve a desired risk mitigation level for our clients.
Cabling and branch weight reduction pruning are also great mitigations for branch breakage.
Check out our pruning and cabling page to learn more about these services.
If proper pruning/cabling services cannot reduce the risks of tree failure to tolerable levels, tree removal is your best option. After removal, plant a smaller tree species or variety in place of the large one so that you don’t have to worry about tree failure in the future.
Check out our removals page to learn more and see videos of our team performing these services.