Why Tree Topping Is Not An Acceptable Industry Practice

Is shaping up and beautifying your landscape on your list of resolutions or to-dos for 2021? With the new year comes hope for new and fresh beginnings. Change is good, but it takes more than good intentions to make it happen. If you’re excited about sprucing up your trees for spring, find how to do the job right. Learn why tree topping is not an acceptable practice, and how to safely and properly prune trees for maximum health and beauty. 

What is Tree Topping?

Have you ever seen a tree that literally looks like it’s been hacked off at the top? Then you have witnessed the results of tree topping first-hand. The tree topping technique involves removing the large branches from the treetop and leaving only lateral branches and stumps on the tree. 

Largely promoted by slap-dash or unlicensed, unbonded trimmers, tree topping is never considered an acceptable practice by certified arborists; mainly due to the fact that it does much more harm than good. In fact, highly trained tree specialists would only ever recommend this approach if the tree was ultimately dead or being cut down entirely.

Tree Topping Myths vs. Facts

To meet your aspirations for a better landscape in 2021, you may already be talking with potential contractors and landscapers. The homeowner with little tree care knowledge or experience could easily be ill-advised with any of these myths. Make sure you can tell fact from fiction when it comes to discussing tree topping!

Myth: “Topping rejuvenates the tree.”

Fact: Tree topping removes far too much of the tree’s crown, causing it to become unbalanced. In the case of an older tree, it distorts the root-to-shoot ratio and temporarily cuts off its ability to make food. 

Inversely, a topped tree can also respond by rapidly growing new shoots that become high-maintenance. They must be pruned much more often than normal in an attempt to restore normal structure and growth. 

Myth: “Topping a tree is more cost-effective than having it pruned.”

Fact: At first, it might seem cheaper and more direct to cut the top half of the tree off to get the quick result you are looking for. But as a result, over time the tree will need more frequent maintenance, and become a hazard.

The large, broad topping cuts create room for epicormic shoots on the remaining trunk to grow quickly into large, poorly attached branches. (If it doesn’t cause the tree to die completely!) There is a strong chance that they’ll end up breaking off and cause damage to property. In this regard, tree topping is a truly negligent practice and creates a liability that you, the homeowner are responsible for in the long run. 

Topping may reduce cost and time for the moment, but the actual costs can be seen in:

  • Reduced property value
  • Removal and replacement cost when the tree dies
  • Loss of other trees and shrubs that succumb to the changed light conditions
  • Risk of liability from weakened branches
  • Increased future pruning costs

Myth: “Tree topping is a time-tested way to prune a tree.”

Fact: Topping is actually “outlawed” by national tree care standards, and has always been highly debatable and controversial. If a contractor tells you they have always done it that way, it’s very likely that they aren’t up to speed with the latest, scientific tree care methods.

Myth: “The tree creates too much shade and is too large, so it needs to be reduced by topping.”

Fact: Naturally, trees create shade. Instead of going overboard with tree topping, you really shouldn’t plant anything underneath if it can’t handle full shade. The alternative, proper selective pruning, can reduce the bulk of a tree, letting in more light and allowing wind to pass through the tree. Proper pruning will not overstimulate regrowth, so the tree will not respond as drastically as when topped. 

Negative Effects of Tree Topping

If you’re in a hurry to make big changes to your trees, you might find tree topping an appealing option for drastic change. Maybe you are overwhelmed by the height of your tree and are worried about branches breaking in a spring storm. But it is important to know the long-term negative effects that topping has on trees. Before you jump into a hasty decision, consider the research from Purdue University’s Forestry and Natural Resources:

  • Starvation: Trees need leaves to manufacture starches during photosynthesis. A tree’s transport system moves starches from the leaves to the roots. Topping, however, removes so much of the leafy crown that a tree may be unable to provide the roots with this necessary product. This in turn prevents the roots from growing and transporting nutrients and water to their leaves. The tree starves.
  • Shock: The tree crown acts like an umbrella, shading the bark from the direct sunlight of summer. The sudden removal of the leafy protective layer exposes the bark to sunscald. Neighboring trees used to shady conditions may be adversely affected. Poor health and death often occur.
  • Insects and disease: Large wounds resulting from tree topping have difficulty closing. The location and size of the cuts prevent the tree’s natural defense system from functioning. The stubs are open wounds that invite insect invasions and the spread of decay fungi. If decay is already present in the limb, cutting will only speed the spread of decay.
  • Tree death: Some species of trees do not tolerate topping. Beeches, for example, sprout little after severe pruning. The resulting lack of foliage severely reduces the tree’s ability to capture sunlight and turn it into glucose. It will likely lead to the death of the tree.
  • Ugliness: A topped tree is a disfigured tree. Even with regrowth, it never regains the grace and beauty of its species. The landscape and the community are robbed of a valuable asset.


Safe Alternatives To Tree Topping

If tree topping isn’t the way to go, what are my other options? The best alternative to tree topping is crown reduction. Crown reduction is one of the most common methods that skilled arborists use to strategically control the size of the tree and keep its shape perfectly. 

The crown reduction method involves reducing the foliage of the tree while still preserving the general structure of the crown. This action successfully trims the overall shape of the tree and controls its size. Typically, branches that are located on the highest portion of the tree canopy are cut shorter to effectively decrease the tree’s height. However, they are only removed to the next lateral growth to be able to ensure that they heal faster and grow again properly. Standard practice suggests that only 20% of the tree’s canopy should be cut at once in order to avoid the tree from suffering. 

If your tree is not exceptionally large, crown thinning is a slightly different approach that is also highly effective and very safe for the tree’s overall health. Crown thinning is the selective removal of smaller branches (less than 2 inches in diameter) in the leafy upper/outer canopy of the tree, using thinning cuts. 

Benefits of crown thinning include:

  • Crown thinning is a good way to minimize damage caused by snow loading, the primary factor leading to tree failures in Colorado. Crown thinning reduces limb weight in order to compensate for structural defects.  
  • Crown thinning may or may not reduce wind sail and the potential for breakage in strong winds. In situations where a tree has a very thick canopy, excessive thinning may increase wind flow through the tree canopy and may increase the potential for limb breakage in strong winds. Increased air circulation through the canopy may reduce foliage diseases. 
  •  Crown thinning increases light penetration into the tree interior, which can invigorate the tree and help retain the tree’s natural shape. However, increased light penetration into a lawn may invigorate the lawn, adding stress to an old or declining tree due to root competition for water and nutrients. 

Finally, if your goal is to trim or reduce thickness in the lower part of the tree limbs, crown raising is the way to go. Crown raising or limbing up is the removal of lower branches to provide clearance for people, traffic, buildings, or a view. To protect the trunk’s structural integrity, always maintain at least one-half of the foliage in the lower two-thirds of the tree. 

An expert arborist will approach this strategy with careful planning. They are aware that on healthy, medium-aged trees if greater than 25 percent of the foliage will be removed, pruning should be done over a period of years. On mature trees, you do not remove more than 20 percent of the foliage in any single year. Overall, it’s best to avoid crown raising on older trees showing symptoms of stress and decline.

Why Should I Hire a Certified Arborist to Do My Tree Trimming?

We’ve stressed how harmful tree topping is for Denver Trees. Yet there are many opportunist landscapers out there to make a quick buck, who may try to persuade you that this is the fast, cheap, and easy route. At Fielding Tree and Shrub Care, we are committed to using only the best researched-based practices and we care about the long-term health of your trees. We stand behind the integrity of our work.

Our expert arborists have years of experience caring for Denver trees. They know exactly how to evaluate your tree and determine the best course of action for proper trimming and pruning. Collaborate with our trained team to make your landscape vision for 2021 a beautiful reality.

Denver trees and shrubs are not just our expertise, they are our passion! We can put together a custom pruning schedule to keep your trees happy and healthy. 

Schedule a consultation with one of our certified arborists today!