Tree Services: To Top or Not?

Tree Topping

When thinking about tree services, a task a lot of homeowners feel confident with is tree topping.

As long as a tree or shrub isn’t massively tall, this task seems pretty easy. You just snip off the top so it’s the desired height and you’re good to go, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, and even if it were, a lot of arborists warn against the dangers of tree topping because it does more harm than good.

The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) defines topping as “the indiscriminate cutting back of tree branches to stubs or lateral branches that are not large enough to assume the terminal role.” You also might know topping as hat-racking, heading or tipping. In many cases, topping flies in the face of national standards for good pruning and can cause severe injuries (to the tree, not the pruner).

Hunger Pangs

Topping can starve your tree. Proper pruning removes less than 33 percent of the crown in order to allow the tree to keep making food. However, topping takes away so much that it disrupts a mature tree’s root-to-crown ratio, stopping food-making processes immediately. It shocks the tree — understandably so — and keeps it from producing new shoots.

Topping also leads to poor new growth because new sprouting branches aren’t as strongly attached compared to a naturally developing branch.

Too much of a good thing is definitely possible with trees, and this is true with fast new growth. Most homeowners top trees to manage height and spread, but often the opposite happens.

Trees try desperately to re-sprout after a topping, causing too many new sprouts too quickly. These sprouts are elongated because the tree is doing whatever it can to regain its original height as quickly as possible.

Topping Alternatives

Big wounds, such as those that occur with topping, are difficult for trees to seal, and leaves them vulnerable to disease and insects. Contrary to popular belief, topping doesn’t make trees safer, it prevents them from making food, it’s costly and ultimately makes them look unattractive. Unfortunately, topping remains popular because it seems easy and safe.

Instead of planning to top any trees you plant, choose good locations for them, and pick native species when you can. Prune instead of topping to get rid of extra growth. For better views, you can “window” or “crown raise,” but never remove more than 25 percent of a canopy at once. Always get rid of diseased, crowded, weak, dead or dying branches with crown cleaning.

Reputable arborists are always educating and informing landowners about the dangers of topping, but a lot of misinformation is still floating around. Care for your trees right and prioritize pruning over more drastic measures. Depend on pros like Reliable Tree Care for top quality pruning and tree services.