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."


What a lot of much ado about nothing!! If you own a property and have a tree that is out of control in height and girth, the only way forward is to remove it. Yes but have you checked on the cost of that!!!???? So in the Uk, one has to get permission to remove a tree but as long as another is planted then it's ok. I watched in that country as a tree was cut down to 3 feet high, from 65ft within weeks it sent out branches and shot up to six feet and continues growing. Cutting a tree down to a more manageable size is the same as cutting back roses that grow and put on a better show. You can bet your bottom dollar that if you top your tree of 50ft and have a 25ft tree that before long you will have a 50 ft tree again! Yes an Arborist is trained and artistic but have you checked what they charge !!!!???? I have 6 annoying 75ft sweet gum ball trees and I know that if I cut them back to 30 ft they will grow healthier and stronger. Probably put out giant sized balls too as a better' gift ' ( Lol) to me !! Obviously a can of tar to cover the cut will seal them from disease. So please get real and realize that only millionaires can afford such treatments, and the best thing for the trees is to reduce their size so they can better feed themselves. The same for all living things.

I have read all the comments about topping trees and as a arborist I go to classes and learn about trees and topping is very bad for them,topping opens up the top a aloudes ddecay and mits or bacteria into the vascular or blood stream and can kill the tree .Most people like to have trees trimmed in the summer which can heard the tree. Make sure the person you hire knows what they are doing and don't cost you in the long run.

So nice to see this subject treated so clearly on Angie's list. If your tree worker is not a certified arborist, look elsewhere. Even if he or she is a certified arborist, ask to see examples of their work and for contact with previous clients. There are Certified Arborists out there who continue this moronic practice...buyer beware. 20 year certified arborist and member of ISA.

Those who say all "topping" is bad are misinformed. Topping is a catch-all word, a very poor term. Some trees can be cut back with very good results, for others (birch is one) it is a disaster. In eastern PA ( and all over Europe) street trees of Norway maple, sycamore (or London plane), catalpa and a few others are cut back to a few main branches that then resprout long shoots which are cut off the next spring, back to a knob. This works fine, keeps the tree small and can look good. But this practice is not a once-and-done thing. It demands regular maintenance, ie, annual re-pruning ... an expense that many will not want to pay. The correct term for this practice, BTW, is pollardiing. If your tree pro has not heard of it, find someone else.

Pollarding is NOT topping. Topping is never OK except in emergency situations. NO tree responds well to topping. If you have to perform such work annually, just remove the tree and replace with something that grows naturally to the size you want in the area. 20 years as a certified arborist...I've heard it all said by the less informed tree cutters out there. There is no substitue for good, expert tree work. Toppers DO NOT KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING.

There are ordinances in Miami-Dade County Code against topping or hat-racking. Miami-Dade County defines it as “tree abuse”. Many South Florida counties and municipalities have regulations to protect against this type of pruning. Having this type of pruning done opens the homeowner and tree company to not only citations but liability and mitigation costs. Homeowners need to verify the regulations and ordinances of their state, county and local municipality to ensure that the work being performed is being done properly. Homeowners are often held finically responsible for the citations as the work was done on their property. Do your homework and protect yourself. Many municipalities have arborists on staff that can help you ensure that the work is being performed within the required standards. It is also important to note that some municipalities improper pruning performed on Street Trees can result in additional fines. Do your homework and protect yourself. Many municipalities have arborists on staff that can help you ensure that the work is being performed within the required standards.

I totally agree with all who say that tree topping is a bad thing to do. BUT what should I do in this situation? I have a large magnolia tree that covers my front yard. My house was built in the '40s and the tree might have been planted then. Last summer, 2011, we had record heat and drought in TX. My tree suffered bad sunburn on the crown. The tree is in bloom right now, but when that is over, what should I do about the sunburned sections?

Hi C. Watson,Josh here from Angie's List's online team. Apologies for the "jumping" page - we recently switched to a new publishing platform and there a few kinks we have yet to work out. This article's layout will be corrected shortly!

It is almost impossible to read the story and very frustrating when the page keeps hopping around; probably to accommodate the photos. Also, it's difficult to write this comment for the same reason. I would have liked to print the story, but I only got one page. You should have a text version. Don't know what you're saying about HTML.

1. Can you top an Italian cypress tree? 2. Cannot down load the new Adobe software. Any suggestions

Tree topping is common practice in Europe. If you visit the gardens of the Versailles Castle, you'll be able to walk through alleys lined up with chestnut trees that are two or three hundred years old. They are topped approximately every ten years and look ugly and miserable for the next two years. But they thrive after that.

Especially rampant in Central Florida are the mutilated Crep Myrtles. I wish people would listen to our Ag Agents who preach against it

I want to know who are the people who highly rate the people who hat rack or top trees?

There is no excuse for topping trees. Poorly educated people who should not be allowed near trees are the only ones who would top a tree, Especially in South Florida, There is always a better way! Always! As an ISA Certified Arborist, Chairman of the City of Miami tree canopy committee, Arborist at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Chairman of the Urban advisory committee to the University of Florida and a member of the American Society of Consulting Arborist as well as the president of the Tropical Arborist Guild. There is no reason except laziness to do the kind of damage to a tree that hatracking or topping does. The city of Miami will fine you $1,000 if you are not homesteaded. Please do not allow your trees to be topped or Liontailed.

Tree topping is against the American National Standards Institute A-300 Standards for Maintenance of Woody Plants. That is the recognized industry standard for the United States, and a base reference for many city codes that make topping illegal. Tree Pruning is done to improve the safety, health, and value of trees; not to cause further damage. I work in Florida and throughout the United States, and tree topping is as bad for trees in Florida as anywhere else I have observed it. There are many damage claims by property owners that are based on a tree service or arborist who topped, or hatracked, a tree instead of pruning it. Many good examples of pruning and tree care are available via the internet, so we can all learn to maintain trees for better health and value to our shared environment.

Some years ago, we planted several drought tolerant trees to enhance our home. They grew well, and eventually needed pruning of dead wood after an unexpected snow broke limbs and to shape the tree in keeping with its normal growth pattern. Our regular yard maintenance crew gave us a good price. I was alarmed when I saw a guy without any safety equipment - not even eye protection - up on an old ladder with a chain saw working on the top of the tree. He dropped the chain saw, but was unhurt, to our good fortune. After this worker left at the end of the job, the tree looked "coat racked." in fact, it looked like a 3rd grader drew it! It never recovered full, but we kept it anyway as it filled in a place we needed protected from our relentless sun here in the Mojave Desert (Henderson, Nev). This contractor is long gone, and we no longer tolerate the use of the "t" word (topping) in any discussion relating to trees. Had to learn the hard way. Just glad no one got hurt. We still have the tree in all its mutilated form, but that's life, I guess.

Just a look will confirm that topping is unnatural-there have been numerous studies showing the results are nothing but a quick fix. Education is the best way to cure this problem- unfortuately it takes time to get the message to government, professional, power companies, etc...but with patience we hope all learn the "correct" way to prune trees.

I think those that feel as if topping a tree is their only choice do not know the true meaning of TOPPING. Crown reduction will reduce the height of the tree also. And if done by someone who knows what they are doing, it is safe and sometimes healthy for the tree. Please stop topping trees.

The only house on our block with lines in front, we protected our sugar maple by negotiating for a heavy cable and having an certified arborist do minimal,non-disfiguring pruning for the passage of the cable through the canopy. Our tree lights up the block!

nice job, Saving you tree "lights up the block!

I agree with those who discourage topping tree at all cost. There is always exceptions. Like fruit trees.

Topping IS one of the worst things you can do to a tree. The guy in Florida that said, "In South Florida, you really have no choice," is wrong and this is why we still see topping, too many yahoos out there that promote it and don't know any better. Height of a tree doesn't make it prone to storm damage. Specie of the tree, thickness of the crown, height, branch unions such as V-crotch or U-crotch and defects such as hollow and cracks and many more things come into consideration when a good certified arborist reviews a tree. Thinning and possibly crown reductions can do wonders to making a tree more resistant to storm damages; topping is never a correct answer. Topping will only lead to one thing, a dangerous less healthy tree in the future that will cost you more money in the end trying to deal with the maintanance nightmare you just created. Will a recently topped tree handle a huricane better? yes, of course, because there is hardly any tree there. But what grows back very soon will be a disaster of a tree, prone to failure. Topping is cheap initially, but will cost you more in the end and ultimately cause the tree to eventually have to be removed. People are always trying to come up with exceptions. They will say certain areas of the country are exceptions. The biggest one around here is that many say the failure prone 'bradford pear' variety of callery pear is the exception. Well I say it is NOT. Give me a bradford pear and let me trim it every 3 to 5 years very mildly to establish a tree without any V-crotches and keep it mildly thinned out and you will have a fairly strong tree. What about an old brad pear that hasn't been trimmed as it grew; it still can be significantly prepared for storms by a proper thinning and crown reduction. This type of trimming does not stress the tree, does not stimulate the tree to grow out of control, does not stimulate weak thin growth. Also, weak v-crotches can be bolted or if the diameter isn't terribly large certain leaders can be cut out before they rip apart themselves. I have trimmed hundreds of bradford pears and never have we topped one. We see our results over the years and proper pruning does work. Topping takes almost NO skill and doesn't follow any of the pruning rules to keep a tree healthy. Topping is completely WRONG. (from an ISA Certified Arborist and a member of TCIA).

A Texas power company invaded our properties on Sam Houston's original homestead and butchered over 140 trees in an effort to defraud FEMA of millions of dollars. Several ancient trees have already died and others are dying. Every certified arborist in Texas is scared silly of "big power" and refuse to assess the damage for fear of never being hired by a power company again.

The streets in little towns in PA are losing their beautiful canopies because of electrical companies and municipal workers with no real training who just top with no regard to proper care of trees. Here in TX I am seeing oaks planted in group of three in one hole, why is this an accepted practice? Surely this must weaken the trees as they reach out for sun and water and have to grow at a slant. Here too I have been told to top the side trees. I would think I would need to cut out two of the three to let one have a strong life?

As a Certified Arborist in Florida, I would state emphatically that there are myriad alternatives to topping trees in this state. A statement by an uncertified tree worker that "in South Florida, you really have no choice" is doing a grave disservice to trees, and their owners. Based on an on-site assessment, a Certified Arborist can recommend options that provide for happy people, and healthy trees.

Its doubtful that we could ever get 100% of people to respond against topping in a poll. Primarily, because some folks realize they can get away with it for a few years and still have a decent looking growing season canopy. The disfigurement argument is still subjective. The best way to reduce the number of topping episodes is to just continually repeat the lesson about health and structure. It still takes small investment of time though, to explain the difference between topping, and necessary or optional crown reduction by skilled arborists.

Great article, tree care is more involved then many people think. Just cutting them indiscriminately will cause long term problems. Another problem is that high nitrogen fertilization has been shown to cause insect and disease problems in woody plants. Many companies have turned the service into a commodity, and will do it wrong just to generate billing. An old study from UW-Madison showed a 300% increase in tent catipillars on fertilized crab apples compared to controls!

Before removing or trimming trees please be thoughtful of birds nesting in the spring. I never have any tree work done until after the nesting season in the fall.

I wish I had read this sooner. I have a large white birch in my yard that I planted over 10 years ago. about 5 years ago it had a disease and was dropping its leaves. I called in a tree service. They treated the tree and fertilized it. Then came back each year and fertilized again. The tree growth was out of control. I then had it topped and all of the consequences the article described followed. I will probably need to have the tree removed at some point and start over.

Why with all the certified arborists available in Charlotte would you choose to include a quote from someone whose not?

Solar power VS trees I have two Bradford Pear trees in my back yard. I planted them and love then as if they were members of my family. I have pruned them fertilized them even resorted to reinforcing one with a sort of girdle when the main trunk developed a crack. I want to install solar cells, my choice is to either remove the trees or top them. If I go ahead with the solar project I will console myself with the fact that half a tree is better than no tree at all.

Excellent article! It is more important now than ever before that we take good care of the trees on our properties. They are living creatures, too, and deserve our respect. Proper pruning by licensed professionals is part of that care.

Apple training course heres. Here is useful thing to prunning apple trees. This information is very helpful to cultivate apple.

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