Tree Topping: An Outdated, Dangerous, & Detrimental Tree Trimming Practice

Example of tree toppingIf you’ve ever driven through your neighborhood and seen trees lopped in half, then you’ve witnessed tree topping. Maybe it’s something you’ve even had completed on your own property. Although before the 1990’s, this was an acceptable practice, understanding and knowledge of tree health has since come a long way.

Certified Arborists know that this is not only an outdated but also dangerous method as it can be detrimental to your tree’s health.

We’ll explain a bit more about why it’s best to avoid tree topping and how there is a better way to improve your tree’s health with proper pruning.

What is a Tree Topping Service?

Tree topping means coming in and cutting the top off of the tree—sometimes as much as half of it all at once. This service has also been called “heading” or “tipping” a tree.

Tree topping is usually implemented when homeowners feel their tree has become too large for their property. Homeowners commonly think this might reduce their risk of the tree falling or becoming a hazard.

It’s ironic that tree topping not only does not reduce future risk but can actually increase risk in the long term. There are several reasons why this service is detrimental to your tree’s health. We’ll explain why.

Why is a Tree Topping Service Dangerous?

There are several reasons why tree topping ultimately causes more harm than good for your trees.

Let’s look at some of these risks.

Topping Puts Stress on Your Tree

When you top your tree and remove most of (or all of) the crown, then you also remove the tree’s food source (its leaves, through which the photosynthesis process creates food). This puts the tree under a tremendous amount of stress and sends it into starvation mode.

This can do one of several things. It can seriously weaken the tree and be detrimental to its health. But it can also push rapid growth, which totally defeats the purpose of why you likely topped it in the first place. It can grow so fast that in as quick as 2 to 3 years, the tree can be just as tall as it was before.

Topping Leads to Decay

While the tree may grow back to the same height, it won’t be as strong. Topping leaves the tree prone to decay. When pruning is performed properly, a tree will “compartmentalize” the decaying tissue and heal properly. Trees are equipped to handle these small cuts.

But when the cut is so massive, it’s too much for the tree to heal properly. There will be a whole column of decay down the center of the trunk. Down the road, this means that the tree will be weak. It could be at a greater risk of falling or dropping a limb.

Topping Can Lead to Insect and Disease Infestations

With these large and open cuts made during topping, your tree is also going to be vulnerable to insect and disease infestations. Normally, a healthy tree can often defend against these infestations but in its weakened state, that won’t be the case. In fact, some insects are actually attracted to the chemical signal the trees release during this weakened state.

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Tree Topping is Ugly

Trees can be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing additions to your property. But when topped, they can become gnarled and unattractive. Topping leaves ugly stubs, destroying the natural form of the tree. Without its leaves, you’ll have to live with a tree that looks mutilated. And even as the tree re-grows, it may never be the same again. As we’ve already mentioned, its health will be negatively impacted.

Tree Topping vs. Crown Reduction

While tree topping is an outdated method, there are proper ways to prune your trees that can ultimately improve their health and make them safer.

The proper service for a tree that is getting too big for the area and needs to be scaled back is called “crown reduction.”

Use This Helpful Guide to Know When Your Trees Need Pruning 
Crown reduction must be performed with precision as it can ultimately kill a tree if too many live limbs are removed (and is crossing into “tree topping” territory). It’s important not to remove more than 25 percent of growth. Crown reduction is generally performed every other year and is only advised in some species of trees.

There are other methods of pruning that can be used to maintain the health of a tree.

  • Crown Cleaning is the removal of identifying and removing dead, dying, and diseased wood.
  • Crown thinning also aims to identify and remove dead, dying, and diseased wood. But on top of that, this method will also begin to remove some live limbs with the goal of reducing the overall weight of the tree. Crown thinning will remove about 20 to 30 percent of the tree’s growth uniformity.

A Certified Arborist can help you to determine which method of pruning is best for your tree by considering the tree species, its health, and also your goals.

Certified arborist pruning a customers tree

Choosing a Tree Pruning Service in the Lehigh Valley

Now that you understand what a good tree pruning service should be doing, you’ll want to make sure that you choose the best tree care service out there. One of the biggest factors to look for is extensive training. You want to be sure that whoever is working on your tree knows what to look for and makes smart cuts that benefit the overall health of the tree—not ones that negatively impact it in any way.

Unfortunately, there are still some companies that offer tree topping. While the vast majority of tree care professionals are familiar with the proper procedures (and understand tree topping is outdated), we still see it done from time to time.

But by choosing the right company, you can rest assured that your tree care professionals are doing what’s needed to protect your investment in your tree. Instead of causing you future problems, your tree will be on its way to better health.

If you have concerns about trees and shrubs on your property, we’d love the opportunity to visit with you for a free tree care service consultation. Please feel free to contact us or call us at 610-365-2200.

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