pruning Trees

Save A Tree: Say No to Topping!

Who hasn’t seen a tree pruned drastically, with all the branches cut back, often 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.

Poor pruning results in stubs that never heal over ((compartmentalize), letting rot and insects infect the tree. Photo: http://www.gardening-guy.com

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 downwards through the tree and weaken its structure … if indeed they don’t out and out kill the tree.

A forest of suckers (waterspouts) will appear, none leading healthy branches. Photo: http://www.statesmanjournal.com

When a tree is severely pruned (that is, if it survives the onslaught), it rapidly grows back, producing numerous new branches called suckers or watersprouts 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!

An Easy Solution

Don’t top trees. Photo: http://www.arborday.org

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, visitPlant Amnesty, an organization dedicated to ending the senseless torture and mutilation of trees by bad pruning.

Article originally published on March 18, 2015.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. After studies at the University of Toronto and Laval University where he obtained his B.A. in modern languages in 1978, he succeeded in combining his language skills with his passion for gardening in a novel career as a garden writer and lecturer. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He is a regular contributor to and horticultural consultant for Fleurs, Plantes, Jardins garden magazine and has written for many other garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Rebecca’s Garden and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 50 other titles in English and French. He can be seen in Quebec on French-language television and was notably a regular collaborator for 7 years on the TV shows Fleurs et Jardins and Salut Bonjour Weekend. He is the President of the Garden Writers Association Foundation and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. An avid proponent of garden tourism, he has lead garden tours throughout Canada and to the gardens of over 30 countries over the last 30 years. He presently resides in Quebec City, Quebec.

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