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Why Topping Hurts Trees

You’ve probably seen it: decapitated trees under and around overhead lines. Trees that grow “too big” for someone’s yard.  As they age, the trees still attempt to grow up and out, resulting in weak and hazardous forks until they are topped again. Why do people do this? You might as well just kill the tree outright.

In spite of over 25 years of seminars and pamphlets explaining what a bad idea topping is, it remains a common practice.

Most people, if asked, will say that topping is the only way to tackle an overlarge tree that may have become a hazard or interference. But that’s simply not true. There are a number of ways to prune a tree down to a smaller size without risking the problems associated with topping.

3 Reasons Why You Should Never Top A Tree

One of the reasons it’s so puzzling that tree topping still persists is that it is a singularly ineffective technique. If you were to consciously design a method of making a tree more unattractive, more hazardous, more high-maintenance, and more unhealthy, you couldn’t do better than topping.

Topping Makes The Tree React In Exactly The Ways You Don’t Want

When you cut the top of the tree, you may think you’re removing very little (in terms of wood) but in fact you are removing probably half of what the tree needs to survive: its leaves. The leaves are how the tree breathes, and topping a tree is like removing a lung.

Understandably, the tree reacts to this threat by producing innumerable shoots to attempt to regain some of that “lung” capacity. Its secondary efforts are put towards growing a replacement “leader” or main stem.

If the tree survives, within two or three years it will need to be pruned again because of the furious growth it has undertaken to try to repair the damage done to it by topping.

Topping Makes The Tree Unhealthy

Well, how healthy would you be if you lost a lung? But the problems go beyond that. Most people who are so short-sighted as to top a tree also do not use proper pruning technique, leaving “stubs” behind where they have cut the branches. These stubs do not heal over as the tree grows, and leave it susceptible to insects and rot.

The tree, having lost nearly all of its protective canopy, is also likely to suffer from sunscald, further weakening it. You might kill your tree inches at a time by topping it, and need to bring your tree butchers back in to cut it down for you in a couple of years. Good business model for them!

Topping Makes The Tree Hazardous

When a tree grows naturally, and especially if it is well-pruned, its leader (trunk) is strong and straight, and the lateral branches that spread out from the trunk grow at angles the will bear their weight as they grow.

All that goes out the window in the aftermath of a topping. Branches go every which way, clustering, crossing, and at high risk of blowing down due to their weak attachments. A topped tree is far more likely to lose limbs in subsequent years.

If you have a tree that’s becoming a hazard, call a certified arborist, who can help you prune your tree safely while still preserving its health and attractiveness.

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