Stop the Topping

By Lindsay Bond Totten – Scripps Howard News Service

Following is an excellent answer to the question, “What about topping my tree?” It was true then, and it’s true today.

Tree with Lift

When will we stop mutilating our ornamental and shade trees through the practice of “topping?” Who mandated that topping was a legitimate means of controlling the height of a tree? Why does the myth continue? Who knows? But perhaps we could start by all making a pledge not to top any of our own trees. Maybe the notion will catch on.

Many folks resort to topping- cutting off all of a tree’s top branches at the same height – because a tree has outgrown its space. The first mistake, of course, was! planting the tree there in the first place. In an effort to create shade quickly, many homeowners fail to respect (or are never told) the ultimate size of a shade tree.

The second mistake is believing that once a tree is topped, it stays topped. Actually, just the op- posite is true. A tree’s height may be reduced initially, but within a very short time, the problem is back-even worse than before.

The final mistake is engaging a tree company that advocates, or caters to, the practice of topping. To understand why topping is so detrimental, let’s approach top- ping from a scientific standpoint. Severe pruning of any type awakens adventitious buds, latent vegetative buds that arise just below a pruning cut.

Shoot growth is rapid as the tree attempts to replace lost leaf sur- faces. Numerous sprouts that arise are not true branches; their tissue is soft and weak. They usually grow straight up, out of character with the natural shape of the tree. The result is a comical-looking tree, almost like its hair is standing on end.

Because topping creates stubs and pruning wounds that don’t heal well, it also invites insect and disease-problems. This poor pruning practice can reduce an otherwise healthy tree to poor health within a few years.

Besides health issues, topping generally disfigures a tree. An ugly diseased shade tree is no longer an asset to a landscape. It’s a liability. Once a tree has been topped, what next. Unfortunately, there’s no easy short-term way to undo the deed, which is why it’s best not to top a tree in the first place. A topped tree will look awful for a while, especially in winter, tempting a homeowner to repeat the process just to make it look better. Eventually knobs will form where branches are repeatedly removed, resulting in a grotesque “witches’ broom” effect.

It’s a good idea if faced with the reversal decision to discuss the probable outcome with a qualified arborist. After several visits and several years’ growth , it might be possible for a skilled professional to restore a more pleasing silhouette to the tree. Sound pruning practices offer alternatives to topping. A good arborist can reduce the height of a tree by a third (or more), while retaining a natural branching pattern and shape. Also, by properly thinning in- terfering branches, a tree can live safely in harmony with overhead wires.

Lindsay Bond Totten is a horticulturist.
Article originally appeared in The Bucks County Courier Times, March 25, 1992.

Posted in News.