tree topping

One of the most common questions that we get asked is why we don’t top trees. It was once a popular way to prune, and, sadly, it is still practiced by some today, so we understand why you might be confused that we don’t offer this service. As there are multiple reasons why we do not, we thought we would give a more detailed answer to this query.

As Certified Arborists, we are trained in the best possible pruning methods for your trees, and take into account all aspects of a tree’s health, location, and needs. Tree topping has been known to be a harmful tree pruning practice for over 25 years by plant scientists and arborists alike, and no reputable company should offer it as a service.

What is Tree Topping?

Tree topping goes by many names, including hat-racking, heading, rounding over, and tipping. Topping is cutting off the top of trees, usually because the trees have grown too tall, are blocking a view, or because proper tree pruning techniques are not known.

Sometimes this outdated form of pruning is performed with the intention of reducing risk (such as a tree too close to a power line or building), but as you’ll discover, topping is actually a dangerous solution.

Topping Trees Costs You Money 

While the actual service of tree topping might seem like a bargain, you’ll realize quickly that it is much more trouble than it’s worth.

Topped trees grow quickly

While someone may ask for their trees to be topped in order to keep them shorter, topping actually causes trees to grow, and fast! Topping promotes the growth of small, upward-facing branches called water sprouts. These are a tree’s emergency response – it needs to get nutrients as soon as possible, since it goes into starvation mode when most or all of its leaves are cut off.

The new growth falls off easily

These water sprouts, sometimes called suckers, grow 4 to 10 times faster than normal branches and are weakly attached to where the branch was cut off, which begins to rot. The combination of the rotting branch and the weak water sprouts means that branches often break and fall – sometimes on the ground, but often on the property or people you were originally trying to protect.

Topped trees need corrective pruning

Trees that have been topped will need corrective pruning within a few years. Topping a tree will not prevent storm damage, or, as we’ve mentioned, keep a tree short.

You may be liable

You may be liable for any damage that the topped tree causes. Because tree topping is considered improper pruning, if a branch from the tree or the tree itself causes any damage, it may lead to a finding of negligence in a court of law.

Tree Topping Can Lower Your Property Value

Topped trees are not exactly attractive. They resemble stumps more than trees, and once the shoots begin to appear, the tree forms an unnatural shape. Unlike proper pruning, which works with the tree’s natural shape instead of against it, tree topping causes a tree to lose its natural form. Once a tree is topped, even extreme recovery pruning cannot return it to its original form.

An ill-formed tree impacts your property and can significantly reduce your property value overall. You know how all those home buying and flipping shows talk about curb appeal? A stunted, disfigured tree with stubby ends does not have curb appeal.

They’re also considered an impending expense, as trees that have been topped end up needing more corrective pruning, or, in some cases, will need to be removed as they cannot survive.

Tree Topping Injures (and Can Kill) Treestopped tree

Tree topping causes trees to go into shock, as you’ve just removed most or all of the leaves – which is how trees gather their food. As mentioned earlier, the tree goes into emergency survival mode, shooting up new growth if it has the reserved energy – but if it doesn’t have the reserved energy stored, it basically starves to death.

Topping produces cuts that are large wounds on the tree. These open wounds are especially vulnerable to disease and pest infestations. The tree may lack sufficient energy to ward off these predators. In addition, some pests are attracted to the chemical distress signal that trees give off from the wounds.

A tree’s natural response to the pruning cuts is to try to close the wounds off from pests and diseases. However, the way that the cuts are made during topping (along with the number of cuts and their location), may prevent a tree from being able to close those wounds. This then leads to decay, and, based on the number of limbs that are suffering from decay, may lead to the death of the tree.

One final note on tree health: removing the leaves during tree topping can also cause trees to become sunburned because the leaves are not blocking the harsh rays. You can tell if a tree has been exposed to high levels of sun and heat because it will start to develop cankers. Other signs are the bark splitting or branches dying.

Tree Topping is Dangerous

Because of all of this added stress to the tree, in addition to the new, very fragile shoots (some species produce shoots that can grow as much as 20 feet in a single year!), the tree is highly susceptible to winds, storms, disease, and pests, and is a significant liability.

If you are considering topping a tree to make room for a power line or because it is blocking the view of a street sign, it may be best to instead remove the tree and replace it with one more suited to the space, perhaps a species that will not grow as tall or as wide. Check out our recommended small trees and be sure to choose the right type of tree for the right location.

Don’t Top Your Trees

To sum up, tree topping has been known to be a harmful pruning practice for over 25 years, but lack of education and knowledge on the subject means that it continues to be practiced. As one arborist stated in this article on Angie’s List, “some tree services do not practice good pruning techniques and would rather the client be ignorant instead of educating them.”

We hope that the above information has opened your eyes to why we do not perform tree topping – and perhaps you can share this newfound knowledge with your friends and neighbors! We would love to see a stop to this ill-advised practice, and soon!