Topping hurts trees

Trees are a vital component of healthy urban communities, giving area residents a multitude of benefits including clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat and psychological well-being. They screen harsh scenery and block noise from the urban environment and help reduce our heating and cooling bills. Trees also raise property values.

Considering their many benefits, one might assume trees in our cities and communities receive the best of care. Unfortunately, when it comes to tree pruning, this isn’t always the case.

First, a general reminder: if the trees in your yard are in need of pruning, it’s often best to wait until early summer, after the leaves have been fully expanded for a few weeks. No matter what time of year, remember not to “top” your tree.

Tree topping is the indiscriminate cutting back of tree branches to stubs. It’s a common but detrimental practice that damages a tree’s health and value. It weakens trees, making them vulnerable to insects and disease, and shortens their longevity.

Topping a tree removes much of the tree’s “crown” of leaves and branches. The loss of foliage starves the tree, which weakens the roots. Often, without its crown, a tree cannot protect its sensitive bark from damaging sun and heat. The result is the splitting of the bark and the death of branches.

Topping is expensive 
Each time a branch is incorrectly cut back to a stub, numerous long, skinny young shoots called water sprouts grow rapidly back to replace it. On the other hand, properly pruned trees require less maintenance since the work does not stimulate an upsurge of re-growth. And, proper pruning actually improves the health and beauty of a tree, saving you money in the long run.

Using the Council of Tree and Landscape Appraiser guidelines for evaluation, appraisers subtract hundreds of dollars from the value of a tree when it’s been topped. And, not only do topped trees reduce property values, they also eventually increase liability because of safety issues. In many cities, topping of city-owned trees is banned because of the public safety factor and the potential of lawsuits.

Topping is ugly 
Unfortunately, a tree’s 90-year achievement of natural beauty can be destroyed in a couple of hours. Topped trees appear disfigured and mutilated. Sadly, once topped, a tree will never return to its natural shape and taper.

Healthy trees for healthy communities 
Kristin Ramstad, urban forester with the Oregon Department of Forestry, hopes people can learn to appreciate the advantages of proper pruning and give up the practice of tree topping. “Topping often creates high-risk trees, but proper tree pruning usually creates safer, healthier, and more beautiful trees,” says Ramstad.

Trees make important social, environmental and economic contributions to the sustainability of our cities and our quality of life. Properly managed, healthy urban trees signify time and money well-spent, are a good indicator of a healthy community and will repay you with benefits many times over.

If the trees on your property are in need of pruning but you’re unsure just how to go about it, contact a certified arborist, your local university extension agent, or the Oregon Department of Forestry’s urban forestry program in Salem.