Who hasn’t seen a tree pruned drastically, with all the branches cut back to the same length? This is called topping or heading… and it’s an incredibly bad idea. In my neighborhood, unscrupulous tree pruning companies leave notices in my mailbox every year offering to top my trees and I regularly see homeowners who have been taken in by the scam. Yet topping trees is always harmful to the tree it’s being applied to. In fact, many topped trees will actually die from the massacre.
Homeowners are promised topping will reduce the tree’s height, decrease the shade it produces, eliminate weak branches and improve the tree’s overall health. And they pay plenty to get exactly the opposite.
Topping reduces all the branches to about the same length. They are cut with no thought to their structure rather than carefully at a point where the injury can “compartmentalize” (heal over) adequately. This creates a huge number of stubs: branch ends that die back rather than healing. These open wounds allow rot and insects to penetrate the tree and, over time, both can extend downward through the tree and weaken its structure… if indeed they don’t out and out kill the tree.
When a tree is severely pruned (that is, if it survives the onslaught), it rapidly grows back, producing numerous new branches called suckers that grow from the base of the stubs. As a result, any promised reduction in height or shade is temporary. And the suckers are far more numerous than the original branches, creating denser shade than ever.
And that’s not all!
Suckers are only weakly attached to the tree and as they lengthen, they begin to snap off under their own weight. As a result, once a tree has been topped a first time, it becomes necessary, for safety reasons, to top again every 3 to 4 years. So ever more money goes into maintaining a tree that probably needed no maintenance to begin with.
Unless the tree dies, of course, and many will die from this severe attack on their structure and their health. Trees seldom die quickly, though, but few homeowners think to trace the tree’s decline back to the tree pruning service that they hired 10 or 15 years earlier. And removing a dead tree costs money too!
The solution is easy: simply don’t top trees! There is no situation where topping is recommended: it is poor arboriculture, period. There are many legitimate reasons a tree may need pruning: dead or damaged branches that have to be removed for safety reasons, badly placed branches that need shortening, a crown that needs thinning, etc. An arborist can do all the above and much more, but will do so selectively, branch by branch, cutting in just the right places. A certified arborist will not accept to top a tree; he or she can be barred from the profession for doing so. Anyone who does offer to top one of your trees is simply a charlatan!
For more information on the hazards of tree topping, visit Plant Amnesty, an organization dedicated to ending the senseless torture and mutilation of trees by bad pruning.