Sadly, the annual tree topping or “butchering” season arrives each spring. Realistically, most victimized trees never should have been touched in the first place.
Who does it? Everyone from homeowners to landscapers and tree service companies that often do not understand the impacts on the long term health, safety and appearance of trees. The 2012 January ice and snow storm demonstrated that Mother Nature can also do her share of topping.
What is topping?
On deciduous trees, it is the removal of a major portion of the leaf-bearing twigs and branches. This results in a tree with short, unattractive stubs that remain after most of its canopy has been removed. A topped conifer, like a fir or hemlock, will look like its head was chopped off.
Topping is often done to reduce the size of a tree or to remove a perceived hazard. Unfortunately, just the opposite will generally result over time.
How do trees respond?
When most of the leaves and twigs are removed from a deciduous tree, it will often attempt to restore the lost food manufacturing plant as fast as possible. Consequently, heavy pruning or topping actually stimulates sprouting as a tree enters a survival mode. Some common species, such as flowering plums, produce massive numbers of sprouts that will grow much faster than normal – up to 5 feet or more versus the usual 1 foot or less per year.
Since these new sprouts are weakly attached, they can become more susceptible to breakage during severe storms or heavy snows as they increase in size and weight over the years. Consequently, such trees may eventually become more hazardous than if left alone or properly thinned.
Conifers will generally attempt to form a new top. The branches closest to a cut or broken top will slowly begin to turn upward. Usually one branch will dominate, but sometimes multiple tops will develop over a period of several years. Such new tops are more weakly connected than a tree that still has its original top. As they become taller and heavier, many of these new tops become more susceptible to breakage and consequently more hazardous.
Topping stresses trees
Some topped trees may die because of a lack of food reserves. Others may no longer be able to defend themselves against insects or decay that find weakened trees or open wounds to enter. These trees often will die a slow death.
Topping is ugly!
Normally, trees form branching structures that are natural and pleasing to the eye. Topping destroys that natural form and does not go unnoticed by the public. The skeletons of abused trees are all too visible during the fall and winter months when leaves are absent.
Examples are plentiful along streets and in large parking lots. Many of the trees did not need pruning because there were no nearby structures or overhead wires. Butchered trees detract from the value of a landscape and can negatively impact the appearance of an entire neighborhood or a business.
Topping is expensive
Heavily pruned ornamental trees may require trimming every year or so. Following each pruning, the prolific sprouting repeats itself and further stresses the tree. Repeated prunings cost dollars and may continue until either the tree or a homeowner or business gives up.
Proper tree pruning
The best pruning jobs on ornamental trees are generally not obvious because the work is barely noticeable.
This is accomplished by careful thinning of branches that are crossing, pointing inward, are dead or that cause the shape of a tree to be out of balance. The offending branches can be cut out or carefully shortened by a knowledgeable individual.
Proper thinning retains a tree’s natural shape, avoids stimulating massive sprouting and minimizes any stress.
Conifer trees should never be topped if possible. A better option may be to remove an objectionable tree and replace it with a more appropriate one.
The bottom line is that topping or aggressive pruning should be discouraged. Usually the outcome is unattractive, expensive and can eventually shorten the life of the victimized trees.
Dennis Tompkins is a certified arborist, certified hazard tree assessor, Master Gardener and urban forester from the Bonney Lake-Sumner area. He provides renovative pruning of small trees, pest diagnosis, hazardous tree evaluations, tree appraisals and other services for homeowners and businesses. Contact him at 253 863-7469 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: evergreen-arborist.com.