Topping trees not a good idea

February 24, 2009|By ANNETTE IPSAN

Winter is the perfect time to appreciate the natural grace and form of trees. Without their cloak of leaves, you can see their upswept branches and artful silhouettes.

Topping - the indiscriminate chopping of thick branches - destroys this beauty and harms the health of trees. Hacking branches to stubs is damaging, dangerous and expensive.

Why do people top trees? Most have trees too big for their space, and feel topping is a good way to control size and prevent hazards. It's not. Topping weakens trees, making them more likely to cause damage. And there are much better ways to control size.

Topping stresses trees and sets them up for all sorts of problems.

Leaves are the food factories for trees. Since topping removes more than half of the leaf-bearing crown of a tree, it literally starves trees. Topped trees react by forcing out many thin shoots around the cut to make more leaves. Creating these shoots drains even more energy.


A stressed tree is more vulnerable to insect and disease problems. The large, open wounds topping creates expose wood to attacks. Because the tree is weakened, it might not be able to defend itself.

Good pruning cuts are made where a branch meets the trunk. Trees can heal this type of cut. Topping cuts in the middle of a branch create ugly stubs that are hard to heal.

Multiple large cuts - a staple of topping - create serious wounds. The exposed wood often decays and creates a perfect pathway for decay to move down through a tree. Columns of decay caused by repeated topping make a tree more likely to fall.

The fistfuls of shoots that form near a topping cut are weak and bring problems, too. They aren't anchored in deep tissue like a normal branch, popping up instead from buds near the surface. So they tend to break. Plus, they grow fast - up to 20 feet a year. Now you have multiple weak, long branches that are likely to shear, an unsafe situation.

Also, topping is expensive. Topped trees need to be pruned every few years because of the rapid regrowth of all those skinny branches. Improper maintenance of a tree through repeat toppings is more costly in the long run than proper, professional pruning.

Topping has hidden costs, too. Weakened trees are more likely to cause damage by falling or dropping branches. And disfigured trees do nothing to enhance property values.

According to the International Society of Arboriculture, well-maintained, healthy trees can add 10 percent to 20 percent to the value of your property, while topped trees reduce value.

Topped trees are ugly, unhealthy, hazardous and harmful. Please don't top trees or hire someone who perpetuates this practice.

If your tree is too big for a spot, prune it properly or remove it and replace it with a smaller tree better suited to the site. If you are unsure about how to prune a tree properly, call or e-mail me for a free tree pruning guide.

Annette Ipsan is the Extension educator for horticulture and the Master Gardener program in Washington County for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. She can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1604, or by e-mail at

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