The Myths of Tree Topping

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Dear Agent Trowel,

I hear that the city of Charlotte once fined one of their businesses $10,000.00 for “topping” eight maple trees, and another business $675.00 for “topping” some crepe myrtles a while back!! I don’t get it. I just paid a man with a chainsaw and a truck $250.00 to do exactly the same thing to the oak tree in my front yard! If topping is such a bad thing in Charlotte, why is it big business in Lincolnton??

Ken Lynwood Stacker

Mr. Stacker,

Topping is a bad thing in Charlotte and a bad thing in Lincolnton. It’s a bad thing in Denver, and from Vale to New Zealand. In other words… it’s just bad. The International Society of Arboriculture, The U.S.D.A. Forest Service, NC State University, Clemson, Virginia Tech, University of Minnesota, Penn State University, Purdue, University of Illinois, Washington State University, Montana State University, University of Arizona, my uncle’s youngest nephew, and all agricultural schools I have checked, are very clear in stating that tree “topping” is highly unprofessional, and damaging. Yet somehow, people are still paying good money to have this “service” performed.

Topping seems to have reached epidemic proportions in Lincoln County this year. It really does need to stop for the long term good of our communities. There are freshly topped trees all over the place. You are definitely not the only one in Lincolnton to fall victim to this practice this year.

Topping is not hard to spot. The poor abused tree ends up with stubs of limbs and branches chopped off as if the tree was shaped with a giant hedge shear to look like a “flat-top haircut” or “snowball/cone”. Limbs are not chosen, and removed, but are instead improperly chopped off to a stub. Sometimes, the tree is butchered even more severely to look more like a giant hat rack (see the illustrations).

There are several myths that can lead you to hire a “tree topper”. Every one of us who has a tree that we love or care for needs to learn to recognize these myths, and to ignore them.

Sales Myth 1:  Topping Rejuvenates the Tree

Research says:  Topping reduces the foliage needed for energy. The tree then uses stored energy resulting in a weakening and greater vulnerability to attack by pests and disease. An unhealthy flush of growth does appear around the incorrect pruning cuts, however, giving the illusion of rejuvenation.

Myth 2:  Topping Makes the Tree Fuller

Research says:  Many trees will produce dense foliage to try to replace the sudden unnatural lack of leaves the coming season. However, the new branches that form are poorly attached and weak and the topped branches are open for decay and insects.

Myth 3: Topping is Inexpensive

Research says:  A topped tree requires more corrective pruning because of the flush of weak, poorly placed new limbs that form on the remaining stubs of limbs. The tree will far more likely die prematurely, which will reduce property value and will require the expense of removal and replacement. Also, the destruction of the natural tree shape and structure can take thousands of dollars off of the value of a large ornamental tree on your property.

Myth 4:  Everyone else is doing it! It Must Be Good

Research says:   “Everyone else” topping their trees has been shown to be the major cause for tree decline and death, second only to planting too deeply.

Myth 5:  The New Growth is Stronger

Research says:  After a tree is topped, the regrowth is normally faster, but weaker, poorly attached, at improper angles and far easier to break off as it grows larger and heavier. This opens the tree to worse storm damage and opens you into far more liability later.

Myth 6:   The Tree Casts Too Much Shade so you need to top it

Research says:  A true tree professional will thin a tree with proper pruning to reduce shade without the terrible damage of topping.

Myth: The Tree Got Too Big for its own good

Research says: Trees genetically reach a certain size in given circumstances. They don’t outgrow themselves. Perhaps the wrong tree has been placed in the wrong spot. The solution is professional pruning or replacement, not a topping attack.

Mr. Stack, if you want tree work done in the future then I strongly suggest that you hire an insured (important), certified arborist who is trained and up-to-date with continuing education. It might cost more now, but getting a professional job done is well worth it in the long run. A professional may be able to repair some of the damage done previously by un-professional tree services, and more importantly, a professional arborist will do more good than harm for the future of your trees. Choose your tree surgeon or arborist as you would choose a surgeon for yourself. Worry more about their knowledge and qualifications, and less about if they own a saw.

For information on how to find a documented, certified, professional arborist for your tree needs, or to get a copy of one of the university produced publications AGAINST tree topping, call the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service in Lincoln County at 704-736-8461.

I am sorry about your tree, Mr. Stacker. Maybe your letter will spare others the same unfortunate fate.

Have a great Spring!

Agent Trowel