The hidden costs of tree topping

Proper tree pruning
By Amy Ney
The hidden costs of tree topping

Tree topping, also referred to as rounding over, heading-back, capping and hat-racking, is a fairly common practice throughout North Carolina. Basically, it is indiscriminately removing tree branches and stems, leaving long stubs behind. Many homeowners think that this reduces the height of their tree and helps to prevent hazards. Unfortunately, exactly the opposite is true. Instead of a simple, inexpensive solution, tree topping magnifies the problem and costs you in additional ways.

When a tree has no leaves, its food production source is removed, and it taps into energy reserves to prevent starvation. Numerous small branches will form near the end of each stub to produce as many leaves as quickly as possible. This rapid new growth not only increases the height of the tree, but also the branch density, making the tree taller and fuller than before. These new branches are weakly attached and prone to breakage in windy or icy conditions — a liability for which you are financially responsible.

Topping a tree causes stress in other ways, as well. Newly revealed tissues may become sunburned — possibly resulting in cankers, splitting bark and even death of the branches. Large wounds and long stubs close slowly and are prone to decay and insect invasion. These factors combine to shorten the life of the tree and can cost you in terms of tree maintenance and removal.

Removing tree branches leaves a disfigured tree. Because of the rapid new growth, the tree will need to be regularly pruned. While healthy trees can add 10 to 20 percent to the value of a home, topped trees decrease a home's value as potential buyers are faced with future tree maintenance.

There are several alternative approved and healthy methods for managing your trees. First, be sure when planting a tree that it is the right tree for that place. There should be adequate space for the mature tree, including the height and diameter of the crown, as well as the roots. In the long run, it may be worthwhile to replace a mature ill-fitting tree with a smaller tree that is right for that space.

Another option is proper pruning. Trees are either excurrent (having one main leader, resulting in a pyramidal shape) or decurrent (having several competing branches that result in a more spherical shape). Pruning will not change the tree's natural shape, but it can reduce the amount of crown; allow for a pedestrian walkway; remove competing, weak or hazardous branches; and result in a healthy, aesthetically pleasing tree. Doing the job right the first time may be a little more expensive, but it will keep your trees healthier and save you from hidden maintenance and removal costs later.

Proper Pruning

Simple tips to remember when pruning:

  • Do not remove more than one-fourth of the tree's crown at any one time (mature trees may not be able to handle even that much).
  • Pruning young trees results in well-shaped adults; mature trees should not need pruning other than removal of dead or hazardous branches.
  • Small wounds close much faster than large ones.
  • The best time to prune living branches is during the winter or early spring before the tree has expended energy to produce leaves and shoots.

The first step in pruning a branch is to locate the branch collar, or the thickened tissue underneath the base of the branch, and the branch bark ridge, which is the junction of the tree stem and the branch, usually parallel to the branch angle. Try not to injure any of this tissue while pruning. To remove a small branch, use a sharp hand pruner and make a clean cut outside the branch bark ridge. For a larger branch that cannot be supported while cutting, use a three step process: 1) using a hand saw, make a shallow cut on the underside of the branch outside the branch collar. As the branch falls, this cut will protect the stem tissue from tearing. 2) The next cut should sever the branch outside the first cut. 3) The final cut should cleanly remove the stub outside the branch bark ridge and collar. An excellent USDA Forest Service resource for pruning information can be found at: www.na.fs.fed.us/spfo/pubs/howtos/ht_prune/htprune.pdf.

If the pruning task is too large, hire a certified arborist. Make a careful choice by asking for (and checking) references, checking for current certification and membership in professional organizations, and ensuring that worker's compensation and liability insurance policies are current. Avoid hiring an arborist that offers topping; a good arborist will offer healthy options in caring for your trees.

About the Author

Amy Ney is a freelance writer with a background in private land management. She lives in Haywood County and is a member of Haywood EMC. Related land management information can be found at www.woodlandstewardseries.org.

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