Topping is an out-of-date purning practice that reducing tree size involves the indiscriminate (internodal) cuts without regard to tree health or structural integrity. Topping is not an acceptable pruning practice. Topping is also known as heading, stubbing, dehorning, poodling, etc.
- It starves a tree. Topping reduces the tree's ability to feed itself. Trees require a large leaf surface area to provide food for maintenance and growth. Topping cuts off a major portion (if not all) of the tree's food-making potential (the leaves).
- It doesn't work.Topping stimulates undesirable and unattractive growth. While removing most of the buds that would form a normal branch system, topping often stimulates regrowth of dense, unattractive, upright branches (called watersprouts) just below the pruning cut. Watersprout regrowth is vigorous. A topped tree will rapidly attempt to return to its original height, but will lack its original form. The vigorous regrowth also depletes the tree's stored food reserves which makes the tree more susceptible to insect or disease infestations and less resistant to environmental stresses such as drought, pollution, etc.
- It's torture. Topping leaves many large wounds. Pruning is wounding a tree and trees don't heal like humans do. Trees attempt to seal over wounds, but the process can be slow, especially when their food-making capacity has been reduced or removed and reserves depleted. The wounds left from topping are many and even slower to seal, therefore leaving the tree more vulnerable to insect attacks and fungal decay. An invasion by either can spread into the trunk eventually leading to the death or necessary removal of the tree.
- It's dangerous. Topping creates a hazard tree. Weakened stubs left behind by topping are more prone to wind and storm breakage because they generally begin to die back or decay. Re-growth is also prone to failure as the growth gets larger and heavier because the new growth is not physiologically attached the same way the natural branch is, leading to more failures as the weight bcomes too much to support.
- It's ugly. Topping is disfigurement. Unattractive branch stubs, conspicuous pruning cuts, and a broom-like branch re-growth replace natural beauty and form. Topping can reduces real estate value of trees by 20-100%. A correctly pruned tree increases value at each pruning.
Some homeowners and unprofessional tree care practitioners top trees whenever the trees reach an undesireable height. For some, they believe they are permanently reducing the height of the tree and reduceing the storm hazard of falling braches, when in fact, as we learned above, topping has the opposite effect. Trees are genetically programmed to be a certain height and topping will not acheive long-term reduction in height. People also top trees when they interfere with infrastructure such as utility wires, buildings, or views.
- It's expensive. Once a tree is topped, it must continue to be topped and eventually must be removed when it dies or the owner gives up. This will cost more money in the long run. Proper pruning actually improves the health and beauty of a tree, needs less maintenance and costs less.
It is best to consider one of the two following options: Shift perception of the tree as being too tall to being a tree being a tree. If the kind of tree you have is not a tree you can live with as is, then consider removal and replacement with a tree that better suits the site as well as your needs and expectations. For more information about tree selection and placement, please view our Right Tree, Right Place page.
For more information:
View our Resources page.
Washington State Department of Natural Resources Urban & Community Forestry
WSU Extension "Tree Topping-A Practice to Avoid" Brochure
You Can't Top a Healthy Tree Video
Trees Are Good
Arbor Day Foundation Tree Care Tips
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