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A Disturbing Trend in Tree Pruning

Article by: Robert Redmon

We've all seen it. Drive through most neighborhoods in any town, and you will notice the trees that have been topped. This heartbreaking display is most noticeable in the winter, when the bare branches display large ugly stubs. This practice, called topping or stump cutting, is a common moneymaker among some tree care companies. Educated and skilled professional arborists will not top a tree; indeed, it is one of the most damaging practices that exists.

Unfortunately, topping is a regular procedure among many tree care companies, and they are not bashful about advertising so. The average homeowner is not aware of the facts, and assumes this is a normal and accepted method of pruning in the tree care industry. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Of the most destructive acts that one could commit to a tree, topping is at the top of the list, and ironically is the most controllable. It simply should never be done, for any reason. Notice in the photo that all other trees are already in the process of leafing out, whereas the topped trees are still trying to figure out where all of their branches went! This is already a sure sign of the future stress that awaits these trees. The leaves that supply these trees their life and vigor are absent.

Why trees shouldn't be topped

  • It promotes decay in trees, drastically reducing their health, structural stability, and lifespan.
  • Trees rapidly try to replace the foliage lost in topping, which leads to stretched, weak growth that is attached to a decaying limb and highly susceptible to breakage.
  • By eliminating all of the foliage canopy that must be replaced, trees are subject to enormous stress, and are weakened because they must exhaust energy reserves to try to balance the proportion of (what once was) canopy to root system. This stress also encourages vulnerability to insects and disease.
  • Topping promotes sunscald on thin bark that is unaccustomed to direct sun and heat. This leads to cracking and peeling of the bark, which can further lead to cankers and death of limbs.
  • Arboricultural standards consider topping an unacceptable pruning practice because it destroys the structural integrity of the tree. This creates hazards that can lead to catastrophic tree or branch failure. Because it's a proven unacceptable practice, it can lead to a finding of negligence in a court of law.
  • Topping is expensive. Topped trees are a money hole, and will continue to need to be topped. It puts good money toward a destructive practice and process that leads to the cost of tree removal in the end.
  • Healthy, properly pruned trees can add 10-20% to the value of your property. Topped trees are considered a liability and impending expense, reducing the value of your property.
  • Topping is ugly. It destroys the natural beauty and branching structure of the tree, which can never be replaced. Without leaves the tree appears to be the survivor of a war zone, disfigured and mutilated. With leaves, it is nothing more than a dense ball of foliage.

Can the damage of topping be 'fixed'? Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done to reverse the damage. Once a tree is topped, it's structure and integrity is permanently and irrevocably destroyed. Wounds are opened to the center of the tree leading to decay down the branches, which over time progresses into the trunk. The entire interior of the tree is compromised. New growth has poor branch points and is weak. What you can do is never make the mistake again. Avoid any tree company that advertises "Topping" as a service. Remember, they intend to take your money in a tree removal in a couple of years. A little knowledge in this case can go a very long way.

Your trees are critically important to the well being of your neighborhood, your community and you! Protect them from 'Tree Toppers'!