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Tree Topping

What You Need to Know Before You Consider Topping a Tree

Tree topping is a common practice, but very injurious to trees. Tree topping is the clumsy cutting back of the top of a tree to stubs, leaving lateral branches that are not large enough to assume the role of "treetop" or terminus of the tree's growth. You may hear topping referred to as "tipping", "heading", "rounding over", or "hat-racking."


Is Tree Topping the Answer to Making An Overly Large Tree Smaller?

Usually, the objective of tree topping is to reduce the size of a tree. People may feel that their tree has become too large for the location, or possibly that a tall tree may be a hazard. Topping, however is not the answer. In fact, tree topping is a harmful practice will make a healthy tree more hazardous over time. If you have a concern about the size, health or safety of your tree call a certified arborist for a professional evaluation.


Topping Stresses Trees and Causes a Flurry of Growth

One problem with topping is that it cuts away the major portion of the "food factory", or leaf-bearing crown, of the tree. This harsh pruning triggers the tree's natural survival mechanism, and it puts out latent buds, forcing rapid growth of multiple shoots below each cut. In order to manufacture necessary food, the tree needs to grow a new crop of leaves as soon as possible. If the tree does not have stored energy reserves to survive this threat, it will be seriously weakened and may die.


Tree Topping Makes Trees Vulnerable

The large, open pruning wounds expose the sapwood and heartwood to attack by insects and disease. Some insects are actually attracted to stressed trees by chemical signals. Lack of sufficient energy reserves will leave the tree unable to chemically "defend" the wounds against these attacks.


Tree Topping Causes Decay

Provided they are healthy, trees are innately capable of closing the wounds caused by correctly done pruning. The proper place to remove a branch is just beyond the branch collar at the branch's point of attachment. Cuts farther out on the limb, between lateral branches, leave stubs with open wounds that the tree may not be able to close. Few trees are able to combat the multiple severe wounds caused by topping. Decay organisms have a free and clear path to move into the tree down the branches.



Yep, topping can do to a tree what we all dread at the beach. The thousands of leaves in a tree's crown are there to absorb sunlight. Cutting out the leaves as the top is removed suddenly exposes the remaining branches and trunk to the harsh levels of light and heat produced by direct sun. This can sunburn the delicate tissues beneath the bark, leading to bark splitting, cankers and death of some affected branches.


Hazardous Growth Spurred by Tree Topping

As a tree tries to survive after a topping, the multiple shoots that develop below each topping cut cost the tree dearly in reserves of strength. These new shoots, unlike normal branches that develop in a "socket" of overlapping wood tissue, develop from buds near the surface. As a result, they are anchored only in the outermost layers of the parent branches.


Stubs left from topping usually decay, and the shoots produced below the cut are weakly attached to the tree. As they quickly grow very large, they are likely to break, particularly in windy weather.


Is Tree Topping the Answer to Making An Overly Large Tree Smaller?

Tree topping as an attempt to make a tree safer by reducing the tree's height has the opposite result, making it more hazardous. And, it is often the case that the tree, while tall, was healthy and presented no hazard before being topped.


Instant and Permanent "Ugly" for the Tree

By removing the ends of the top branches, topping can leave ugly stubs, destroying the natural form of the tree. Without the leaves, the tree appears disfigured and mutilated. As the leaves grow back, it becomes a dense ball of foliage, lacking its former stately grace. Once a tree is topped, it can never be fully restored to its natural form.

Topping is Expensive

The true cost of tree topping is not just the initial fee paid to the perpetrator.

  • Within a few years, if the tree survives, the injured tree will need to be trimmed again, or its new branches will fall victim to storm damage and the resulting cleanup.
  • If it dies, the tree will have to be removed.
  • Another cost frequently ignored is the effect on property value. Healthy, well-maintained trees can add 10% to 20% to the value of a property.
  • Trees disfigured by topping are considered a pending expense, which can reduce the value of the property.
  • Because topping is an unacceptable pruning practice, any damage caused by branch failure in a topped tree may lead to a finding of owner negligence in a court of law.

What You Can Do When You Are Concerned About Your Trees
If you have concerns about trees on your property in Pierce or south King County contact us today to schedule tree care services, 253-288-8733. Whether your trees have over-grown the space available or you are worried that they're getting "too tall" and possibly unsafe call us. One of our certified arborists can determine what steps, if any, are necessary to improve the health, appearance and safety of your trees.

Tree topping can turn a healthy (safe) tree into a hazard.
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  Thundering Oak Enterprises, Inc.
Local: : 253-288-TREE (8733)

Local: 425-226-TREE (8733)

P.O. Box 1847, Auburn, WA 98071

Serving Pierce County and South King County
Algona, Auburn, Black Diamond, Bonnie Lake, Burien, Covington, Des Moines, Dupont, Edgewood,
Federal Way, Fife, Fircrest, Gig Harbor, Kent, Lakeland North, Lakeland South, Lakewood, Maple
Valley, Normandy Park, Pacific, Parkland, Puyallup, Renton, Ruston, Spanaway, Sumner, Tillicum,
Tacoma University Place and all areas in South King County and North Pierce County.

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