Wednesday, September 23, 2015

When Caring For Trees Avoid Topping

Tree topping is a subject I can really get worked up about. It’s unprofessional, unsightly, outrageous, unethical, dangerous, and I even suspect it causes more frequent rainy weekends and bad-hair days. It’s unthinkable, horrible, bad, yucko, blecch! That should be pretty clear—any questions? Oh, exactly what is tree topping? Hang on. Mmmph—there, that’s better. Had to wipe the foam off my mouth.

Tree topping is the removal of limbs and or/ trunks to an arbitrary length, leaving stubs. Variably known as heading, hat-racking or tipping, it is denounced by the Tree Care Industry of America, The International Society of Arboriculture and other professional tree-care organizations.

Topping is not to be confused with pollarding, a practice dating to feudal times when peasants could be put to death for cutting down the king’s trees, but were allowed to clip each year’s twig extension back to a callus “ball” for use as fuel and fodder. Pollarding does not work on all species, and to be successful must be started when a tree is relatively young, and continued annually.

Back to topping. It shortens a tree, but doesn’t alter the tree’s DNA which instructs it to grow to its species potential. After the natural branch structure is destroyed by topping, new growth erupts from the bark. These shoots, called epicormic sprouts, will become major branches. Unfortunately, they are always poorly attached to the parent wood.
Because the tree is in a “hurry” to re-gain its genetically mandated height, the new branches grow faster than usual. You know haste makes waste, and as a tree cranks out these replacement limbs, it “forgets” to add much lignin, stuff that helps make branches strong. So now we have branches weaker than the originals, badly hitched up to the trunk or major branch wood.

But that is not all — there are two more things. Thing One is decay, which sets in at each topping wound. Our flimsy new branches soon find themselves attached to a rotting stub. It may take thirty years or it may happen in fewer than five, but every topping cut grows a killer limb. Of the precious few certainties in life, three of them are “death,” “taxes,” and “tree topping creates hazards.”

Thing Two is the tree’s budget. A hat-racked tree has to take “money out of the bank” (starch out of storage) to replace leaf-bearing wood at a time when much of its bank account, the starch stored in woody tissues, has been stolen and run through a chipper.

Trees need reserves to make defensive chemicals that protect against pests and decay, to expand root systems, and produce each year’s leaves. A topped tree is weaker and is far more vulnerable to decay, disease, and insects than it had been before its “treatment.” If a short tree is desired, a short-maturing species should be planted.

It may sound like I’m backpedaling, but there is a practice called “crown reduction pruning” which can slightly reduce the height of hardwood trees without harming them. Crown reduction takes a good deal of training to do properly. It can only reduce a tree’s height 20-25 percent, and has to be repeated every 3-5 years as deemed prudent by an experienced arborist.

Another practice, called “crown thinning,” addresses fears about a tree blowing over. This is the judicious pruning of branches evenly throughout the canopy to reduce wind resistance. A maximum of 20% of live branches may be taken. Again, this takes a great deal more skill than topping.

The International Society of Arboriculture, a research and education association of tree care professionals, advises the public that a tree company which advertises topping should not be hired for any work. Period. Like, don’t let them set foot on your property. A company willing to top trees is by definition less than professional, and less likely to understand other elements of tree care, including basic safety procedures.

Tree topping is acceptable, however, for all who enjoy forty-foot hat racks and liability lawsuits. Now are there any questions?

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

11 Responses

  1. I’m curious if the author is familiar with, or approves of, a popular pruning technique in Spain, where sycamores in public plazas are all pruned back to the same height to create a natural arbor. Is that a type of pollarding?

  2. chris says:

    Thanks for the info!

  3. Paul Hetzler says:

    Joe, thanks for that information–I’m not familiar with that particular system. I do know there are other “pruning” methods such as pleaching that dramatically change the shape of woody plants for various reasons. In terms of approval, probably not. There are short-maturing trees that can be used for a natural arbor without disfiguring them. The ANSI pruning standards are science- based, having been developed by a collaboration of academic and industry experts, and I tend to go with those recommendations.

  4. Tim-Brunswick says:

    It’s amazing what you folks at the ADK Almanac will print…………………………….

  5. Charlie S says:

    Tim-Brunswick says: “It’s amazing what you folks at the ADK Almanac will print…………………………….”

    Diversity is key to an expansive mind Tim.

  6. Charlie S says:

    Has anyone noticed the latest fad when it comes to trimming trees alongside roads in the communities around the Capital region and beyond? A big blade on an extendable arm on a tractor shreds whatever tree or shrub comes within reach of it. They do it here in Albany County and other places in the area. I took a ride down Chain Lakes Road in Indian Lake last summer and saw they practice this form of torture in those parts also. After these tractors go through there are nothing but the high and low stumps of sizable trees and bushes in shreds….versus the clean cuts the way it used to be. Most always I see no sense in why they even do this as the growth in every instance was not a hindrance in any way,no electric lines nearby,no obstacle to cars passing,not even close to the road. It must be that the leaders of our townships just don’t like greenery. Or they think it looks prettier when it’s all chopped to pieces. The same mentality as the cutting of fields in city lots just when the flowers are in full bloom and emitting their perfume odors…..instead of letting them grow for the bees and butterflies to savor.

    The railroad people practice the same technique as I have seen in my travels along the eastern side of the Hudson River on Amtrak towards Penn Station. For miles along that corridor are shredded trees and limbs ten to fifteen feet away from the inside rail.I suppose they’re afraid their cars are going to be scratched and they’re playing it safe. I also suppose it’s the cheap way out,cheaper than hiring a human with a chainsaw or trimmers. Saves a lot of time too in man hours. There’s no imagination anymore within the political or private structure,always it’s about the cheap way out because they have no money………or soul is lacking!

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