Three Reasons Not to Top Trees

Topping is known as the indiscriminate cutting back of a tree’s branches, a misguided method for reducing the size of a tree’s canopy. Unfortunately, we’ve all seen it happen-- possibly even in recent weeks due to last month’s ice storm. A tree that once had a broad canopy suddenly looks like a coat rack, with branches cut back to stubs all over. Read on for a few good reasons NOT to top trees.

  1. Just because a tree is large, it is not necessarily unsafe. People are often fearful of large trees, because the thought of having a large tree fail and cause damage or injury is a scary thought. Trees do not fail just because they are big, however. When trees break or drop limbs, these failures normally occur at a weak point – a structural defect, such as decay, dead wood, a weak branch union, a crack, etc. Hiring an ISA Certified Arborist to periodically assess the trees on one’s property and proactively prune for these types of defects can reduce the risk that failures will occur, or reduce the severity of the failures experienced during storm events.
  2. Topping wreaks havoc on a tree’s structure and condition. When a tree is topped, the vast majority of its canopy, and thus foliage, is removed. Because trees make their own energy using their leaves, this causes a great deal of stress when they are suddenly unable to do so. The tree will produce a large amount of sprouts to compensate, which are very weakly attached to the tree. As these sprouts grow, they are much more likely to break than a normal branch. In addition, the large surface area of wounds combined with the stress that the tree has suffered result in greater susceptibility to decay and pest/disease problems. In short, the life span of the tree has been greatly reduced, which could possibly have been avoided…
  3. Trees can be pruned to repair damage or reduce size without topping! There are better solutions for cleaning up storm damage on trees that result in retaining the benefits of a tree that is structurally sound, while still preserving its natural form. Broken limbs may be pruned back to the branch union of a viable limb (one that is at least 1/3 the diameter of the limb being removed) to remove high risk limbs without further stressing the tree. When pruning cuts are made just outside of the branch collar, the swollen area at the base of a branch, the tree is more likely to seal around the wound and prevent the spread of decay. The size of a tree’s canopy can also be reduced using these techniques. When pruning, try to remove less than 1/3 of the canopy if possible, as more than this can result in tree stress or decline, and unwanted sprouting. ISA Certified Arborists are familiar with proper pruning techniques and should be able to repair or reduce a tree in a way that will not cause greater damage. For more information about proper pruning techniques, view the ISA fact sheets on Pruning Mature Trees and Pruning Young Trees.
Sometimes, the damage is just too extensive for a tree to remain, in its current condition. When this is the case, it’s often best to consider planting a new tree and removing the existing one rather than topping and leaving it. While it may seem like a good way to avoid removing the tree at the time, topping can result in another hazardous situation as the sprouts grow quickly and break easily.

The Foster-A-Tree program is a great way to have a new street tree planted in your yard, replacing trees lost. To find a local ISA Certified Arborist, use the “Find an Arborist” tool at Lastly, find out more information about how topping hurts trees at this link.

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