House & Home

Call it heading, stubbing or dehorning, but topping trees is still a bad practice

Topped Bradford pears are a sorry sight, indeed.
Topped Bradford pears are a sorry sight, indeed.

Deciduous tree pruning season is upon us. Late winter, heading into spring, is the best time to prune your shade trees to improve their structure, health and beauty for a long life.

Unfortunately, there are so-called tree care “professionals” who talk uneducated tree owners into a pruning practice that should be banned — tree topping.

Topping a tree is the drastic removal or cutting back of large mature limbs. The tree is left with stubbed branches. Topping is sometimes called heading, stubbing or dehorning. All these practices are bad.

Unsuspecting homeowners fall prey to fast-talking trimmers as they give out misinformation. There are no benefits to topping. Some incorrectly believe reducing the tree height decreases the chance it will topple in wind or ice.

Purdue University Forestry and Natural Resources cites eight reasons why trees should not be topped.

1. Starvation: Trees need leaves to manufacture food. Topping removes the leaves and stems that transport food to the roots, resulting in the inability to manufacture food. Good pruning practices should not remove more than one-fourth to one-third of the leafy crown.

2. Shock: The canopy acts as an umbrella, shading the rest of the tree. The removal exposes the protected bark leading to sunscald. Surrounding plant materials that depend on the shade will also suffer.

3. Large wounds attract insects and disease: The large cuts prevent the tree’s natural ability to fend off pests, which invites insects and wood rotting. Once decay hits a tree, there is no way to stop it.

4. Won’t deter breakage: New limb growth, as a result of topping, is weakly attached to the remaining branch. Given the fact that many sprouts that develop these limbs overlap, the result is minimal attachment of wood to the main branch. This regrowth is more likely to fail than the branches that were removed.

5. Won’t control height: A topped tree responds to topping by sending out long sprouts that are weaker. The tree, if it does not die, may quickly return to its mature height with a bushier, less attractive appearance that’s more likely to fail.

6. It can lead to death: All the factors mentioned are too much for the tree and it dies.

7. It’s ugly: Let’s face it —a topped tree is an ugly tree, disfigured even when it regrows. It will never provide the grace and beauty that a natural tree brings to the landscape ever again.

8. It will cost you money: All it takes is a chainsaw, truck and no knowledge of proper tree care. Topping may seem like a bargain when compared with recommended practices, but in the long run it will cost more.

Topping reduces property values; increases liability risk and future pruning; and increases replacement costs.

There are better alternatives to topping. A certified arborist will know how and where to make the needed cuts to reduce the crown and help develop a stronger and more beautiful tree.

Before you undertake hiring an arborist this spring be a wise consumer not only for your property and bank account but for the health of your tree.