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:

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:

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:

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.

Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day


Tree Wounds Never Heal

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Tree wound healing correctly.

When a tree loses a branch, usually the wound covers over with fresh bark and we usually figure it has healed. After all, when a human is injured – say, a broken bone – , new cells replace the dead cells and recovery is complete. But that’s not the case with trees.

The wound will close over, true enough, but under the scar, the damaged cells simply die and are never replaced. Instead, when all goes well, the cells around the wound emit chemicals designed to prevent rot and new cells cover the wound. The wound is not healed, though: it is simply isolated. This is called “compartmentalization”: the  tree “isolates” dead cells prone to disease or insect infestations. But this injury remains a weak point for the rest of the life of the tree and there is always a risk of infection (particularly by rot) even decades later. Hollow trees are simply trees where compartmentalization did not do its job.

What does this change in life of a home gardener? Simply that it is better to prune trees as little as possible. And when you do have to remove a branch (and that certainly happens), it is better to do it when the branch is young, because the wound will be smaller and so easier to compartmentalize. Also, cut the branch just beyond the collar at its base (the raised bark that surrounds the base of the limb): this is where there the greatest concentration of insulating cells is found and if you cut just beyond it, the wound will be covered faster. Avoid leaving a stub: the tree will have a hard time covering it, allowing easy passage to insects and diseases.

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Topped tree: this botched job left all the branches with stubs!

Especially avoid self-taught tree trimmers who offer “top” your tree (round it off) cheaply. They simply shorten all the branches without paying any attention to where they cut, leaving stubs on every branch. They are charlatans who know nothing about trees and most trees so trimmed will suffer greatly from such an attack, taking years to recover. Many will in fact die, although this can take a few years. When you need to have a tree pruned, look for a certified arborist or, failing that, ask the trimmer what he knows about compartimentalization!