Tree topping is wrong, requiring years to repair

Updated Jul 17, 2023
Topping leaves open wounds on trees and can lead to their slow decline and death. Photo: Missouri Botanical GardenTopping leaves open wounds on trees and can lead to their slow decline and death.
Photo: Missouri Botanical Garden

A huge mistake when it comes to pruning techniques is the infamous tree topping. This is an outdated practice that has been proven to be harmful to trees. But as it is with mulch volcanoes, inexperienced landscapers may assume that because others are doing so, it must be right.

Though many try to justify it, the bottom line is that topping a tree only weakens it and causes it to lose precious energy.

According to industry experts, tree topping mutilates the tree, weakens it, and will contribute to its decline. This can turn a tree into a hazard. Plus, it's ugly. Tree topping leaves a tree looking deformed.

What to do with a topped tree

If you have topped a tree or a customer has called you to repair the damage left by another landscaper, the good news is that it may be able to be fixed. Oftentimes, topped trees can recover from this overzealous pruning.

In an attempt to rebound, a topped tree will start to look like a hydra, covered in thin twigs known as water sprouts.

Patience is key when restoring a topped tree to its natural form. There is no quick fix to its heinous buzz cut.

The water sprouts need to be allowed to reach the tree’s original height before pruning. Look for dominant branches called leaders. The leaders should be the tallest and free of damage.

Weak sprouts should be completely removed, while shorter, stronger branches can remain. They will eventually serve as new limbs for the leader. The leader needs to be central and stable, as it is the primary replacement branch.

The process should be repeated for the next four to six years, thinning out the sprouts gradually to train the tree.

If no one in your company is a certified arborist, it is best to leave this crown restoration to the professionals. The last thing you want to do is cause extra damage to a tree that is already struggling.

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