What Is ‘Topping’ a Tree and Why You Shouldn’t Do It

January 31, 2023
What Is ‘Topping’ a Tree and Why You Shouldn’t Do It

Have you ever driven around your neighborhood and seen trees that look like someone gave them a bad flat-top haircut? Those trees have been “topped.” Learn what topping a tree is and why you shouldn’t do it.

What Is Topping?

Topping is a discredited tree pruning practice where nearly all of a tree’s large branches get cut off, leaving a blunt, stubby appearance. Topped trees will display twiggy, weak new growth that’s nowhere near as robust as the canopy decimated by topping.

Inexperienced or unqualified tree services may try to sell homeowners the idea that topping makes a tree safer, but the opposite is true. And trying to reduce the height of a mature tree is an exercise in futility: the tree will grow back, but it won’t be as strong or attractive as before.

What’s the Difference Between Topping and Pruning?

Pruning is a professional tree service designed to preserve a tree’s shape, health, and aesthetic appeal. Professional tree services know how, where, and when to prune a tree to ensure continued healthy growth.

Knowledgeable tree services will make precise cuts in selected places on a tree to ensure the tree remains stable. Tree pruning safeguards a tree, so it can gain enough energy from the sun and nutrients from the soil to continue to grow in a natural shape. Pruning can keep a tree growing while avoiding interference to and from electric lines or roofs. Pruning is a precise, targeted approach to tree maintenance.

Topping, however, brings new meaning to the word “overkill.” It’s more like shaving your entire head when you only wanted a trim. Topping wantonly cuts all the major branches and the central trunk of a tree until the whole top of the tree is gone. What’s left can look like the results of an industrial accident where someone lost every finger on both hands. Not pretty.

How Does Topping Harm a Tree?

The blunt cuts on a topped tree are more susceptible to disease. These huge cuts take longer to heal because it interferes with a tree’s natural healing process (called compartmentalization). Large, open wounds on a tree invite insects and fungi to enter and feast on the tree’s core and bark. A topped tree also exposes the inner parts of a tree to direct sunlight, which can cause peeling bark and scorching.

A tree that has lost its crown loses a tremendous portion of its nourishment system. Trees get their food and water from the sun and soil. Without enough leaves, a tree can’t perform needed photosynthesis to produce enough energy to keep growing. The tree doesn’t produce enough energy for its roots to grow and absorb enough water to send back through the tree’s circulatory system. A topped tree is a weakened tree that is more likely to wither and become unstable.

Like any living thing, trees fight to stay alive. A topped tree will send out little shoots called “water sprouts” in an attempt to quickly regenerate its ability to perform photosynthesis. But these little twigs are weak and brittle, and if they don’t break off when they are small, they very likely will break off when they are larger and more dangerous. Plus, water sprouts on a mature tree look awful: thin little twigs sticking out of a thick, stump-like branch look ridiculous. Topping is the worst thing you could do if the point was to improve the look of your landscape.

Why Would Anyone Top a Tree?

Homeowners sometimes think that topping will solve the problem of a mature tree that has outgrown its location. It won’t. If a tree has gotten so large that it is a menace to passersby, or its roots are invading your home’s foundation and growing into your sewer lines, the only remedy may be to remove the tree entirely. Topping it will only worsen the problem: the tree will continue to grow; it will just be weaker and more likely to fall over.

Inexperienced or unscrupulous tree services may try to sell tree topping as a way to save money on future tree maintenance. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When those little water-sprout twigs start to grow, they grow quickly, and a tree service will have to trim them far more often than they would need to prune a healthy tree. You’ll also need to try and determine which twigs might be strong enough to grow into reasonably stable branches eventually. The process can take years of patient waiting, trimming, and more years of waiting for the tree to grow enough to regain some semblance of a normal appearance and the ability to nourish itself.

Sometimes homeowners demand topping, even if a tree service has patiently explained the adverse effects. If the service agrees to go ahead, the homeowner will come to regret their decision quickly, and the tree service will be hard-pressed to avoid saying, “I told you so” out loud as they must return repeatedly, and charge for every visit, to try to save and restore the tree.

What To Do Instead of Topping

Healthy trees need pruning about every two to five years, depending on the species, climate, and whether the tree has suffered storm damage. In Arizona, trees endure wide temperature swings and shifting periods of drought and monsoon. Desert and city trees adapt to survive extreme conditions. Sometimes those conditions damage a tree’s health to the extent that it is unsalvageable and must get removed for safety and aesthetic purposes.

A professional tree pruning service like ArborCraft, with certified arborists on staff, can advise you on what to do about a large tree that is blocking your view, threatening power lines, or looking distressed by disease or pest infestations. For service in Phoenix and the surrounding area, call ArborCraft. We’ll ensure you keep the trees you want and that they stay healthy.

We can remove storm-damaged trees and fallen limbs, fertilize new trees, and advise you about what tree topping is and why you shouldn’t do it. If you already have topped trees on your property, we’ll give you options for trying to restore the tree or removing it so you can start over with a new tree in its place.

Disclaimer – Use At Your Own Risk: The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as advice for any individual case or situation. We will not be liable for any losses or damages in connection with the use of the information from these blogs. All blogs are meant to be educational. We advise always consulting with a professional before attempting anything written in a blog. We can not guarantee all of the services that we write about in our blogs. Any attempt to perform anything written in a blog can result in serious injury or fatality without expert guidance and oversight.