Trimming or Torture?

Posted on May 14, 2016

toppedtreeillustrationMost of what is called tree trimming, isn’t. It’s topping. The misguided practice of tree topping (also referred to as stubbing, dehorning, pollarding, heading, or torture) has risen to crisis proportions over the last decade.  Topping has become the urban forest’s major threat, dramatically shortening the lifespan of trees and creating hazardous trees in high-traffic areas.
People often top trees because they want to make them safe, because they want a view, or just because they wish to have a smaller tree. Topping does none of these things. Instead topping is the cause of trees becoming dangerous, ugly or dead. And, topping doesn’t even work to make a tree smaller as it responds by speeding up its growth rate.

When the tree is topped its leaf bearing crown is removed. Since leaves are the food source for the tree, the absence of leaves can lead to temporary or permanent starvation. As a defensive action, the starving tree responds by rapidly sending out multiple vertical shoots from latent buds below each cut. This action is the trees survival mechanism to put out as many leaves as soon as possible. It won’t slow down until it reaches about the same size it was before it was topped, causing great stress to the tree and undermining its structural integrity. Repeatedly topping the tree will shorten its life and leave it vulnerable to opportunistic infections and pests. During a drought, topping adds even more stress to the trees.

I get really incensed when trees are cut in spring and summer. Topping during flowering is not only horticulturally unsound, it robs pollinators of a vital food source and habitat. It threatens nesting birds and their young, an act which is unlawful in Los Angeles and throughout the nation, by-the-way.

Of course, there are times when trimming is necessary but most people in the landscape maintenance business lack proper knowledge of plants, don’t have licenses, and even legal businesses. This unfortunate situation is compounded by the fact that homeowners, in their own ignorance, routinely request tree topping.

For proper tree trimming, refer to a certified arborist or horticulturist. If they arrive on scene with a chain saw, turn them away unless they are there to only remove a large dead or weak limb that’s a safety hazard. Pruning trees into weird shapes or pruning so much that there is no foliage, blooms or natural beauty left is another sign that the person you hired does not have the proper knowledge or skill to trim.

It’s a good idea to learn what species of tree you have and what they are supposed to look like. The species or type of tree you have determines its size.  A dogwood or Japanese maple may grow from 10 to 30 feet in its life, an oak or an ash from 10 to 90 feet.  Remember, you can’t “stop” trees with topping.  If you succeed, you have killed them.

A major part of being able to use proper trimming techniques depends on planting the right tree in the right spot in the first place. Having trees that grow too large for the space makes proper trimming much harder. In any case, you want to leave the permanent branch structure and prune no more than 20% of the tree leaving enough foliage at the surface to give body to the tree while still keeping the tree open to encourage growth from the inside.

While proper trimming does require a little more attention to what you are doing and it takes a little more time, a properly pruned tree stays “done” longer since the work does not stimulate an upsurge of regrowth. The pay back is in less frequent pruning, better growth, better bloom, and less disease. Proper trimming actually improves the health and beauty of a tree.