Topping techniques bad for trees, homeowners
Having just purchased a home in Scottsdale, Ariz., Angie's List member Dee McLaughlin was dismayed to learn she'd have to remove the lone mesquite tree on her property due to the former homeowner's decision to have it topped.
"My arborist pointed out that it's no longer a tree as the shape had been completely destroyed," McLaughlin says. "All that remained was a center stump with a multitude of spindly growths shooting off of it. The tree was ruined."
Defined as the excessive and arbitrary removal of parts of a tree with no regard for its structure or growth pattern, tree "topping" — also known as hat-racking, heading, tipping and rounding over — remains a contentious practice among tree care service companies, despite disapproval from the two leading industry groups.
"Tree service companies that follow industry standards will refuse to top your tree," says Bob Rouse, the Tree Care Industry Association's director of accreditation.
Established in 1938 and formerly called the National Arborist Association, TCIA accredits tree care companies that adhere to national pruning standards, maintain liability insurance, follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines and thoroughly train all employees. In addition, TCIA accredited companies have been audited for trade licensing compliance and are susceptible to a mediation procedure if consumer complaints warrant it, in which their accreditation can be revoked. TCIA has more than 2,000 member companies that follow stringent safety and performance standards.
The International Society of Arboriculture also rebukes topping.
"As certified arborists, we don't condone the topping of trees," says spokeswoman Sonia Garth. "However, it's still a huge debate in our industry. There are regions, like Florida, that claim trees that have been topped fare better. It's like any other industry where you have different schools of thought, and sometimes there just isn't a consensus."
Created in 1924, ISA is the only organization that certifies individual arborists worldwide.
Understanding this controversial practice
The discord surrounding topping doesn't elude Angie's List members. Seven percent of members responding to a recent online poll said they're fine with topping while 31 percent say they are OK with it in certain circumstances. Twenty-eight percent condemn the practice, 24 percent are indifferent and 10 percent don't know what it is.
"Topping completely destroys the shape of the tree from which it doesn't recover," says member Judy Roberson of Charlotte, N.C. "Taking care of the trees on your property is almost as important as caring for children and pets. Trees add significant value to the property."
Member Dianna Minson of Tucson, Ariz., says she plans on having a palo verde tree topped because it's blocking her view of the surrounding mountains. "I've had a number of other trees topped previously with no ill effects," Minson says. "Those trees are all thriving."
Member Kate Switzer of San Jose, Calif., says she felt topping her liquid amber tree was the only option aside from removing it completely. "I topped it 10 years ago, then again in 2009," she says. "My neighbor sleeps better knowing it isn't going to crash-land on his roof during a storm."
Experts say topping a tree to prevent storm damage is one of many misconceptions surrounding the practice.
"It's hard to change learned habits," says ISA-certified arborist and TCIA member Phil Ping, owner of highly rated Ping's Tree Service in Indianapolis. "For decades people have said 'you got to get that tree cut back or it's going to crush your house.' But as the tree regrows, it's structurally weaker and the risk becomes greater."
Topping destroys the balance between the roots and crown of a tree. Removing too many branches and leaves can starve trees because without foliage, trees cannot make enough food to maintain their strength.
"A tree knows what it needs to produce the amount of food for it to survive," says ISA-certified arborist Mark Wisniewski of San Diego.
As a defense mechanism, a tree will quickly grow food-producing shoots — up to 20 feet in one year — that are weak and prone to breaking, resulting in a more hazardous tree. In addition, bark tissues suddenly exposed to full sun may be burned and develop disease cankers. Large stubs left behind from improper cuts can't heal or seal, inviting decay to enter and spread.
Fruit trees are an exception
However, most tree care professionals say topping takes on a different meaning in regard to fruit production.
"Fruit trees stand alone in the field of arboriculture," says ISA Board Certified Master Arborist Tchukki Anderson, a TCIA staffer who notes there's more than one way to prune fruit trees. "It can be confusing at the mildest. Fruit trees are trees, but they're also a crop. The word 'topping' is considered a poison, but in many cases it's how you can create a productive fruit tree."
Fruit trees aside, when it comes to preserving the shade and ornamental trees growing in your yard, Wisniewski says topping is the most expensive form of pruning.
"You've not only destroyed the shape of the tree but lessened its value," he says. "You've created a hazardous condition and you might have to prune it annually after it's been topped, knowing it might hit the same height in a couple of years."
Peter Masi, owner of highly rated Greenstar Landscaping Company in South Miami, Fla., says he will top a tree if a customer requests it because trimming standards are different in the subtropics.
"In South Florida, you really have no choice," says Masi, who continues to advertise his tree topping services and did not procure enough continuing education credits to maintain his ISA certification. "You can't allow the trees on your property to get 50 feet tall. You have to watch out for hurricanes. It may not be the best thing for the tree, but it's the most practical." Masi says as homes get bigger and lot sizes decrease, the trees are getting edged out. "The trees in your landscape don't have a chance to grow as big as they're supposed to."
Alternatives to topping
The ISA recommends techniques other than topping to reduce the crown of a mature tree, such as removing a branch at its point of origin or cutting at lateral branches that are at least one-third the diameter of the stem at their union. Selective removal of limbs reduces the wind resistance of the tree and allows some light penetration. It also improves the shape and balance of the crown.
"Trees are really no different than you or I," says ISA-certified arborist Jim Houston of highly rated Davey Tree Expert Company in Kent, Ohio. "If they don't get the proper amount of nutrients and water, it increases their stress level, making them more susceptible to disease and insects."
If larger cuts are required, the tree may not be able to compartmentalize the wound. Sometimes the best option is to remove the tree and replace it with one that is more appropriate for the site.
"Some trees we don't reduce — period," says Ping. "You don't do crown reductions on sugar maples or oak trees. Sometimes it's the wrong tree in the wrong place, and you have no choice but to remove it."
Get professional advice before planting a tree
Industry experts recommend hiring a certified arborist or an accredited company when planting trees.
"Topping happens, supposedly, because trees interfere with people," Anderson says. "To prevent it, homeowners should contact a certified arborist so they'll have help choosing what works best for their landscape."
More than half of Angie's List members recently polled online said hiring a certified arborist is a priority.
"Trees are one of the most important assets in our landscape," says Pittsburgh member Cindi Lacy. "Having an educated professional care for the trees is crucial to their long life."
Homeowners should also verify if a trade license is required by their local municipality or state. According to the TCIA, California, Maryland, Oregon, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine license tree professionals.
Tim Young, owner of highly rated Tim Young Tree Service in Charlotte, N.C., says he's delayed his ISA certification until spring due to the economy but homeowners should be wary of companies with no industry credentials.
"Some tree services do not practice good pruning techniques and would rather the client be ignorant instead of educating them," he says. "They'll tell their client what he or she wants to hear, instead of what they need to hear because it takes more time to make proper pruning cuts."
Certified arborists, ISA and TCIA are all dedicated to suppressing the misinformation on tree topping and educating consumers on the hazards involved.
"There's still not a day that goes by that someone doesn't call requesting we top their trees," Ping says. "With that said, I've noticed in the last 10 years there's been a reduction in the number of people insisting on the service. I think slowly but surely, it's getting around that topping is bad."