KC Gardens

Cutting tree tops to control growth is wrong in every way. Here’s why

From time to time I like to climb up on my soapbox, so here goes.

When will people learn that topping trees is wrong?

Topping is one of the worst things that can ever be done to a tree. If there were such a thing as crimes against trees, topping would be a felony murder.

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

Unsuspecting homeowners fall prey to fast-talking trimmers giving out misleading information.

Let me be clear, there are zero benefits to tree topping.

One reason is starvation — topping removes leaves and the transport system. Proper pruning should not remove more than 1/4 to 1/3 of the leafy crown at any one time.

Topping shocks the tree as the canopy acts like an umbrella, shading the rest of the tree. Limb removal exposes protected bark, leading to sunscald.

Another reason is large pruning wounds are a magnet for insects and disease. These cuts decrease the tree’s ability to fend off pests, inviting insects and wood-rotting decay. Once decay starts, there is no way to stop the progression.

And before you call me, no, research shows wound sealants or tree paint can actually injure trees.

But this last reason is the real topper (pun intended). People think topping will control the height of a tree, decreasing the chance it will topple in wind or ice. Topping has become especially popular in dealing with ornamental or Bradford pear trees, which break easily in storms.

The claim that decreasing the height will reduce limb breakage and preserve the tree is a ruse. In fact, just the opposite happens.

Yes, the trees will regrow and the pears will flower again. But the irony is these trees, particularly the pears, are now more susceptible to failure.

Why? Topped trees respond by sending out numerous long sprouts. This new growth is weakly attached to the remaining stubs. The result is minimal attachment of wood to the main branch.

The tree, if it does not die, may quickly return to its mature height. But now with a bushier, less attractive appearance and weaker limbs, this regrowth is more likely to fail than the original branches.

A topped tree is also an ugly tree, disfigured even after it regrows. It will never provide the grace and beauty that a natural-shaped tree brings to the landscape.

Topping may seem like a bargain when compared to recommended maintenance practices — all it takes is a chainsaw and a truck — but in the long run it will cost more money.

Topping reduces property values, increases liability risk, and requires future pruning and eventual tree replacement.

Don’t top your trees, including the poorly structured and invasive ornamental pears.

Now please help me crawl down from my soapbox. It gets lonely up here.

Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? Email them to garden.help@jocogov.org.

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