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Topping Trees Good or Bad?

19 July
tree topping image

Topping trees has been a common practice for years. People have been accepting tree topping as a necessity in tree care. About every summer you can drive around your area and find trees that have been cut almost to a stump. People cut them down for a variety of reasons. Some just want to reduce shade and think that is the only solution. People will argue that tree topping is good for the tree because they have seen others do it. Power companies often prune back trees and they come back healthier than ever. There is a plethora of articles online that says that topping trees is good and will not harm them in any way. However, plant scientists and certified arborists say that topping trees is bad for them. With all the various sources with conflicting opinions, is topping trees good or bad?

How to classify topping trees

Image of workers chopping or topping trees

In order to understand the risks that tree topping causes, it is best to understand how to classify the damaging practice. Topping is the haphazard chopping of branches to its origin or to adjacent branches that cannot support the tree because of their size. Tree topping is used when the owner feels that the tree is becoming too big. This may be a personal preference to size or because they believe the tree may pose a risk to their home. Topping is not the solution to this problem, and, in some cases, topping will increase the risk of house damage.

What tree topping does to the tree…

Trees are genetically able to heal if a limb is cut off. If done improperly, however, the limb with exposed wood tissue will begin to decay. Most trees are able to compartmentalize off the decaying tissue if there is a small amount of cuts.  Few trees can handle many severe cuts from tree topping. If a tree cannot hold off the decay, the organisms spread like a virus until it is completely dead.

Apart from decay, a tree can actually be sunburned. Tree topping does not have to be a factor in this risk, though topping will increase the chances. A trees ability to grow back doesn’t change the fact that the tree is now subject to direct sunlight. Leaves protect the tree from harmful sunlight and heat. Once the tree has been topped, the bark is now exposed. The sun rays can make the tree grow cankers, split its bark, and kill branches. Always be careful whenever removing large amounts of leaves from a tree.

What happens after it is topped?

Image of tree whose bark is split, which can happen from topping the tree and making it lose its leaves

Once a tree is topped, the trees natural survival instinct is to produce multiple shoots below the cut. These shoots bud near the surface of old branches and can grow very quickly. They bud from the outermost layer of the branches, so there is not much support. The shoots can grow to about 20 feet in only one year. Even though this seems like a quick and desirable reaction, these new branches are brittle and can break off very quickly. In especially icy or windy conditions, the branches fall off almost immediately. So now if the goal was to reduce the risk of limbs falling, topping has increased the chances dramatically.

Are there alternatives to tree topping?

Image of worker properly pruning a tree, rather than topping and harming the tree.

Hopefully it has become apparent that the risks are not worth what may happen to your plant. Sometimes trees need to be cut back for various reasons, such as utility line clearance. There are ways to cut back the tree without harming it. Small branches can be pruned back to their origin. If a larger limb must be cut,  try pruning back to a lateral branch one-third the diameter of the limb being removed. This step is to make sure that the new branch can assume the terminal role in the tree. There is always going to be a risk when cutting trees, so always consult a certified arborist when deciding what to do. Keep in mind that removal may be a better solution so that you can replace the area with a species that is better for your needs.