Tree topping is dangerous for its health and safety.
Tree topping is not only unsightly, it invites decay and disease.
Tree topping removes the tree’s food source and causes it stress.
Most trees can’t recover from tree topping and may ultimately die from it.
Your home is your castle, but what happens when you’ve got a few trees on your property that are blocking those castle views? You may be tempted to top your tree, but before you start chopping off branches, you need to know what tree topping is, how it’s different from pruning, and why it’s bad for a tree’s health. This guide will help you understand the issues with tree topping techniques.
What Is Tree Topping?
Tree topping is essentially what it sounds like: cutting back the top of a central stem or trunk along with the upper main branches, typically at a uniform height so it looks like the treetop has been lopped off. Other names for tree topping include “tipping,” “hat-racking,” “rounding,” and “heading.”
Tree topping is sometimes used to reduce a tree’s size, whether it’s because of the fear a tree is getting too tall or too close to utility lines or it’s blocking a view. Unfortunately, the act of tree topping is far more dangerous to the tree’s health.
Why Is Tree Topping Bad?
Any arborist will tell you that tree pruning has many benefits, including encouraging new growth, helping to produce fruit, and improving the tree’s shape. But pruning a tree and tree topping are two very different things.
Tree topping is indiscriminately cutting back branches to a single height, including the tree's main stem. Pruning, or trimming, the tree is discriminately cutting specific branches that may be dead or that may aesthetically affect the tree's look. Tree trimming can also be done to keep branches from growing too close to a roofline or power lines.
Topping a tree can make a tree look unbalanced and—quite frankly—ugly. Trees don’t always recover from this type of lopsided pruning, but that’s not the only reason tree topping is bad for trees. Tree topping can jeopardize its health and safety.
Tree Topping Removes a Tree’s Food Source
Typically 50% to 100% of the tree's leaf surface is removed in the act of tree topping. Since trees produce and store food in their leaves, this can mean vital nutrients are lost, and the tree's health is greatly jeopardized. Even if topping is done during dormancy, it can take six months or more for any leaf growth to return, and it'll not be enough to sustain the tree.
Tree Topping Can Kill a Tree
Because the leaves have been removed by such a drastic amount, the tree is tricked into thinking it’s dormant and goes into survival mode. It begins to put all its energy into producing more shoots and leaves to get more energy and food. If the tree doesn’t have enough energy already stored to make new leaves, this can result in the tree expending all its energy trying to do so. With no leaves and not enough new energy coming in, the tree will literally die trying.
Tree Topping Can Invite Disease and Decay
Hacking away at these top branches down to the stubs also leaves large wounds that invite insects and diseases to attack. Most trees have a natural defense to seal off a single wound or two to prevent disease, but few trees can ward off so many injuries all at once.
In addition, tree topping during non-dormant months also allows sunlight to penetrate to the central parts of the tree that are normally shaded from the harsh light. The result is sun-scalding along with cracks and peeling bark.
Tree Topping Weakens a Tree
When you invite disease and decay, you've created an unbalanced tree. You've essentially created a tree that can't withstand a storm, earthquake, or any other natural disaster. Its new growth won’t be strong enough, and the tree's main trunk will have been weakened thanks to open wounds and disease.
Ironically, homeowners sometimes top trees because they’re advised that the tree may cause damage to their home, only to discover the now-topped tree poses a bigger threat.
Tree Topping Can Also Devalue Your Property
Healthy trees can increase your home’s property value. In fact, a mature tree can add value between $1,000 and $10,000, according to the Council of Tree and Landscape Appraisers.
By contrast, a tree that has been topped can devalue your property. Not only do topped trees look aesthetically unpleasing and ruin curb appeal, but they can also signal unhealthy trees. This can lead to the need to remove the tree altogether. Tree removal costs can range from $200 to $2,000 on average.
What to Do Instead of Tree Topping
We know there's a difference between pruning a tree and topping one. When done correctly, pruning can actually prolong its life. A professional tree service should always do a thorough trimming.
Some arborists may employ a method called crown reduction as an alternative to tree topping. Crown reduction involves cutting limbs from the top portion of the tree canopy shorter (but not all the way down as with tree topping). They cut limbs to the next lateral growth to promote proper and fast healing. They remove no more than 20% of the tree canopy.
Trust the Pros
If you think your tree needs trimming, consult with a certified arborist near you to have it done properly and ensure the tree’s health. If there’s a tree on your property you suspect has been topped, an arborist may be able to help you slowly save the tree. Tree trimming and removal can be risky business, so working with a licensed and insured arborist will protect your property and you.