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Never Top a Tree


Topping reduces food-making capacity.  Trees require large leaf surfaces to provide food for maintenance and growth.  Topping cuts off a major portion of the trees food making potential and depletes the trees stored reserves.
Topping stimulates undesirable “water sprout” growth.  While removing most of the buds that would form a normal branch system, topping often stimulates the regrowth of dense, unattractive, upright branches (water sprouts) just below the pruning cut.  Water sprout regrowth is vigorous.  A topped tree will rapidly return its original height but will lack its original form.
Topping leaves large wounds.  The branch wounds from topping close slowly, so insects, and fungi can attack and decay the branch and spread to the trunk, killing the tree.
Topping creates a hazard.  Weakened stubs are more prone to wind and storm breakage because they generally begin to die back and decay.

Why are trees topped?

Some homeowners and unprofessional tree pruners practice topping whenever trees reach an undesirable height. They mistakenly believe that topping will reduce the storm hazard of falling branches, when in fact, topping has the opposite effect. People also top trees when they interfere with utility wires, buildings, solar collectors, or sunny garden areas.

Selection of trees that only reach desired maximum heights eliminates severe pruning later. If you must prune a tree heavily every five to seven years, the tree is too large for the site. Replace it with a smaller species. The International Society of Arboriculture considers topping an unacceptable practice and advises against it. Unfortunately, even some legitimate tree service companies indiscriminately top trees. Before selecting a tree service, find out which companies advocate topping and avoid patronizing them.

What are the alternatives?

In order to avoid topping, newly planted trees should be properly pruned to develop a good branch structure as they grow. When a mature tree's height must be reduced, an alternative to topping is drop-crotching.

Drop-crotching is a type of thinning cut that reduces a tree's size while preserving its natural shape. To drop-crotch, select and cut higher branches back to laterals at least one-third the diameter of the limbs being removed. Cut outside the branch collar at a 45 to 60 degree angle to the branch bark ridge. Leave the branch collar intact to help prevent decay from entering the trunk. This type of thinning cut will stimulate growth throughout the tree and discourage water sprout development.