Let's Stop Topping Trees

If Topping is so Bad for Trees WHY Does EVERYONE Keep Doing It?

Audubon Park Ordinances specifically state that “It shall be unlawful to remove, top, transplant, damage, poison, or in any other manner destroy or cause to be destroyed any Tree covered by this title.”   “Top” or “Topping” is defined as “the act of cutting back limbs within the crown of a Tree to such a degree as to remove the normal canopy and disfigure the Tree."

When you top your tree you create


The structure of a tree is a well designed scaffold for that species to put its leaves into the best relationship with the sun that the particular tree species can achieve, and all the buds and new leaves are stored in a dormant state in the live twigs ready to spring into action and unfurl when winter ends. 

A tree that is topped loses all those stored food resources for that year, and vastly depletes its energy reserves by starting from scratch.  Normal growth is controlled from the terminal buds on the live twigs, which are removed in topping, and trees generally don’t activate latent buds in true wood except under severe stress.  The new growth is a desperate attempt to replace the rich canopy-in-waiting that the tree constructed in the previous year and expected to use for nutrition in the growing season.  These suckers and sprouts never form normal branches and those branches never develop a normal attachment to deal with subsequent environmental challenges. 

Damaging the structure of the tree and creating acute starvation makes the tree more dangerous in the long run.

By topping your tree, you accelerate its death, and ruin its form

Topping won’t make a Tree Smaller....

Let say that your tree is a mature sprawling maple, with weak wood, and some dead wood and broken branches.  You can try to control its size temporarily by topping.  But it needs a certain leaf mass to survive.  After you top it, the tree will grow as rapidly as possible with hundreds of weak branches to try to create enough leaves to meet its needs. Its growth rate actually increases.  If it can’t resume growing, it will decline and die. 

A tree’s size is determined by its species, and you can’t re-make a maple into a red bud.  If the tree has outgrown its site or its time, better to replace it.

Topping won’t make a Tree Safer....

According to Dr. Alex Shigo, a world renowned scientist on the subject of trees, topping is the most serious injury you can inflict on your tree.  He calls it “a crime against nature.”

In fact, the reason that most public entities ban topping is that topping makes trees more hazardous in the long run.

Topping opens the tree for invading bacteria and fungi that cause ROT, since the tree cannot wall off the stem cuts, as it often can with a proper removal cut of a side branch. 

Topping and repeated topping sets up internal columns of rotten wood, the ill effects of which progressively weaken the tree.  This effect is combined with the starvation from removing the normal buds and leaf canopy.  The new limbs that result from rapid crowded sucker and shoot growth are poorly attached, and even though they can get quite large, they never gain the structural integrity of original branches.  The thick regrowth actually has greater wind resistance, and increases the risk of blow-down in a storm.

Topping creates an ongoing Maintenance Nightmare....

You thought topping would be a quick fix to your ‘overgrown’ tree – but once you top a tree and set off the cycle of abnormal growth, you have to top it again and again.  Some tree species grow so vigorously you almost miss seeing the abnormal branching pattern from repeat cuts.  But each time the tree is re-topped, it worsens the structural weaknesses and each cut forms numerous new suckers.  A topped tree is like the mythological hydra snake, where one head cut off is replaced with many more.

Look carefully at the pictures and see if you can identify the repeated topping cuts, and note the congestion as the process proceeds.

Proper pruning may cost more initially, but it lasts longer.  And it improves the health and beauty of the tree.

Topping creates an eye-sore....

Dr. Sligo says that topping “destroys a tree’s dignity”. The freshly sawed off stumps are just the beginning of the ugly eyesore; the tree looks even worse when it regrows a witch’s broom of suckers and sprouts.

The natural beauty of a tree’s crown is a function of the uninterrupted taper from the trunk to the ever finer and more delicate branches.  Each tree has its own architectural signature in the regular division into branches. Even in winter, an experienced person can recognize a pin oak from a red oak.  Topping destroys the tree’s life pattern in a single day.

It’s your tree, but visually it enhances or detracts from the entire neighborhood.  A topped tree reduces the appraised value of your property. Many topped trees are a liability because a new owner will face removing a damaged and deformed tree.

So you didn’t know...

But why did your arborist agree to top your tree?

Ah, you didn’t hire a certified arborist*?  A guy came to the door and offered to do it cheaply?  Your cousin does trees in the winter? 

Well, now you do know.

*A certified arborist is a person who has been trained and tested in scientific principles of arboriculture (the care of trees).  He or she should not top a tree except under specific circumstances (like under wires) as a last resort.  An arborist can show you how to manage your tree in a way to permanently reduce any hazard, and may even recommend that you are better off taking your tree down if it is severely damaged or has outgrown the site.  If you insist on topping your tree, your arborist should be aware that this is against the City ordinance.
A tree with dead wood and breakage during the wind storm of 2011

Repeated Cuts

Destroying a Tree's Dignity (Below)

 This was meant to be a Sugar Maple.  Notice the central cavity with rot, where the main trunk was amputated, and the secondary cuts where it was topped repeatedly.   A new owner took both the Sugar Maples down in 2011.  (There was a twin tree right next to this one as a pair in the front easement.)

Once you know about Topping you'll recognize Mutilated Trees on many of our streets...

Substandard Pruning: Topping

Two Years Later - Feeble Recovery
After Topping

Falling Apart

More and More Suckers!

Destroying a Tree's Dignity (Below)

This ash had huge wounds from topping and has had
minimal sprouting over three years. It is be dying slowly
 but surely from chronic malnutrition, while it develops rot
in the large limbs.