You may have heard the practice of tree topping referred to as “heading,” “stubbing,” or “dehorning,” but regardless of what it is called, it is always a bad choice. Unfortunately, many uninformed homeowners are often talked into this pruning practice. Topping a tree is not a beneficial or proper pruning practice. It’s a bad decision for any tree.
Tree topping is the drastic removal or cutting back of large mature limbs – back to stubs. Many homeowners have a misconception that having trees topped will reduce the tree height and in turn decrease the chance of it falling due to wind or ice. This is simply not true.
Purdue University Forestry and Natural Resources sites eight reasons why trees should not be topped:
- Starvation – Trees need leaves to make food. Topping removes so much of the leafy crown that a tree may be unable to provide food to the roots and the tree starves. Good pruning practices rarely remove more than one-quarter to one-third of the leafy crown.
- Shock – The tree canopy acts like an umbrella – shading the bark from the direct sunlight of summer. The sudden removal of the leafy protective layer exposes the bark to sunscald. Neighboring plants relying on shady conditions will suffer as well.
- Insects and disease – Large wounds resulting from tree topping have difficulty closing. This will attract insects and disease. If decay is already present in the limb, cutting will only spread it even more.
- Weak limbs – The new limb growth that appears after a tree is topped is weakly attached to the remaining branches. The limbs actually attach to the larger branch with layers of wood that overlap year after year. This results in minimal attachment of the wood to the main branch.
- Rapid new growth – The thought that topping will control the height of the tree is false. Actually, the opposite happens. Trees respond rapidly to the injury by producing many long, weak sprouts. The result – trees quickly regain the height it once had and becomes bushier.
- Tree death – some species of trees do not tolerate topping. All previously mentioned factors are just too much for the tree and it dies.
- Ugliness – A topped tree is an ugly tree. Even with regrowth, it never regains the grace and beauty it once had.
- Cost – A chainsaw and a bucket truck are not all that is needed to properly prune a tree. Topping might seem like a bargain deal when compared to other recommended practices, but in the long run, it will actually cost you more! Topping reduces property values, increases replacement cost when a tree dies, increases the risk of losing nearby trees and shrubs, increases the risk of liability from weaken branches and increases future pruning costs.
Prune trees properly and regularly. Don’t be talked into topping by someone just looking to come in and make random cuts. Hire a certified arborist. They will know how and where to make cuts to reduce the canopy and yet maintain a strong, beautiful tree.
When planting a new tree keep in mind its mature height. The Extension office has a publication on recommended trees for Kansas. This publication also details the mature height that you can expect. Check growth habits before you plant to ensure that the tree won’t outgrow the space!
Krista Harding is a K-State Research and Extension Agricultural agent assigned to Southwind District. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 620-244-3826.
K-State Research and Extension is an equal opportunity provider and employer.