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Topped trees. Are the power lines any safer?
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The Dangers of Tree Topping


"Would you look at that?" I exclaim almost routinely as we drive around town. A horticulturalist does not make for the most enjoyable company in a car. Especially, if like my wife, you could care less about the health of a wayward tree or circling back to check out a random flowerbed. "Was that a field of cabbage? We better swing around to check it out." If I am late to something, it is probably because there was a landscape that required a double take.

There is one horticultural topic (okay maybe more than one) of a landscape practice so horrid which throws me into a tirade where I expound my disdain for its very appearance. You are about to read a rant…er…rather, an article about tree topping.

"But our grandparents did it and so did our parents. If it is good enough for them, it's good enough to me." All due respect to Gramps, but they were wrong. Plant scientists and arborists unanimously agree the practice of tree topping is an unjustifiable practice and has no redeeming benefit to the tree. Still don't believe me? Let's describe tree topping and what happens after the chainsaw is put away.

Tree topping is also known as stubbing, hatracking, and many other names. When a tree is topped, there is no thought or planning as to where pruning cuts occur. A chainsaw is used to cut the canopy of the tree back to a uniform height. Think of it like a buzzcut for trees.

A topped tree loses a significant amount of its leaf cover. Despite our everyday use of the term, we do not "feed" plants with fertilizer. Plants feed themselves with photosynthesis. And when the bulk of the photosynthetic powerhouses (aka leaves) are removed, the tree must spend valuable energy to replace those lost resources.

To do so the tree activates latent buds deep within the woody tissue, these are called epicormic shoots, or water sprouts. These new branches must grow fast and dense to replace the lost leaf cover. Some tree toppers will even contend this new growth is better than before. However, this new lush growth has a weak connection to the old growth, making it far more susceptible to breakage from wind, ice, snow, and attack from insects and disease. If you drive around town while the trees are bare, you may see topped trees from years past with hanging limbs in their dense canopy. Arborists call these "widow-makers."

As these new water sprouts continue to grow and put on weight, the danger for people and property below becomes a big problem. Legally, a homeowner is liable for any damage or injury caused by a poorly managed tree if that person is found negligent. So if your neighbor warned you of the hazard posed by the topped tree or hanging limbs, and that same tree fell and damaged property or hurt someone, you and potentially the landscape maintenance company would be held responsible.

If someone is to work on your large trees, insist they are certified arborists and ask to see insurance. Tree height can be reduced responsibly, with forethought and planning as to where to make the correct pruning cuts. Topped trees are unsightly and could negatively impact your home's curb appeal and shorten the life of our most significant landscape investments – our trees!

If a tree cannot be remedied with proper pruning, remove it and plant a tree more conducive to the site. The cost of removing a large tree may be expensive, but keep in mind a topped tree will never regain its natural shape and will require annual pruning, plus the potential for more costly outcomes down the line.


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