What is Tree Topping?
Topping is basically butchering of tree branches to stubs or to lateral branches that are not large enough to take the terminal role. A lot of trees will have several “tops”. When a tree is topped it creates a lot of stress in the tree and then starts to produce water sprouts. Where the water sprouts start to grow they are a very weak. Topping is often used to reduce the size of the crown. A homeowner may feel that a tree has become too large and near their house, or that tall trees may pose an undesirable risk. If the home owner wants the tree topped, the new branches that grow back are weaker than before and will usually grow to the same size tree in the matter of years and sometimes just in one year.
What Will Topping Do to a Tree?
Trees need leaves to produce food for the whole tree, removing too many of them can temporarily starve a tree and put the tree in survival mode. When topping a tree or taking too many branches off forces rapid growth of multiple shoots (water sprouts) below each cut trying to produce new leaves quickly as possible. If a tree does not have enough stored energy to grow the water sprouts, it will be seriously weakened and may die. When a tree becomes stressed with large open wounds from severe pruning, the tree is more vulnerable to insect and disease. The tree may not have energy to chemically defend the wounds.
When a lot of the leaves and branches are removed, the remaining branches that were usually in the shade and are now quickly exposed to the sun and can cause sunburn of the tissues under the bark and can lead to cankers, bark splitting, and death to the branches. The sunburn happens more often in younger, thin barked, dark barked and trees that are going through drought. One of these or combination along with suddenly being exposed to sunlight can create sunburn. When a tree is in survival mode that causes a tree to produce water sprouts come at great cost to the tree. These water shoots are created near the surface of the old branches. Unlike your typical branches that grow in overlapping wood tissues, these new shoots are attached only in the outermost layers of the branches and are poorly attached. A lot of tree climbers don’t even like to climb past where new growth started after a tree has been topped. The new shoots grow quickly, as much as 20 feet in one year in some types of trees. The water shoots are easy to break during windy or icy conditions. While the original goal was to reduce the crown to help the tree and protect the house, the risk of a limb breaking has now tremendously increased.
If a tree has a dead “top” it’s okay to cut it off, but that just means another branch just took the terminal role of the “top”. It can be difficult sometimes to trim up a tree exactly how the homeowner wants it done, but there is usually an alternative route to topping that the homeowner will be happy about, especially compared to topping. I could drive through most neighborhoods that have mature trees and find several trees that had been topped, they are everywhere. Topping is a very common practice but isn’t recommended by arborists. If any company advertises tree topping as a service they do I wouldn’t recommend them to be hired.
Removing a Topped Tree
When a tree has been topped and is now unhealthy, it can a lot of times be very expensive to properly remove it. When climbing to remove a tree these water sprouts that have grown 20 feet or more and are very large branches to rig. Thankfully they are lighter branches usually and thanks to the help of an arborist block and porta wrap and some good rope a lot of these removals become doable but you are still dealing with a 20 foot branch dangling next to the arborist and usually overhanging next to the house. These branches make it very difficult sometimes to remove the tree. In some cases you can get a bucket truck to the tree, but bucket trucks don’t always get you high enough in the tree or can’t always get these trucks close enough to the tree. When a tree is too rotted to climb and can’t get a bucket truck close enough or doesn’t reach high enough, often times a crane is used. Cranes have different ranges in height like bucket trucks but a lot of bucket trucks reach 61 foot working height meaning where your hands can reach and some can go 75-85 feet, but less common. Cranes a lot of times reach 120-150 feet and that number sometimes includes the jib or sometimes the jib can add onto that height. There are definitely cranes that can go higher than that, but then prices go up really fast from there, usually you have to get permits just to move the crane and semis to bring in counter weights which result in very expensive setup fees.