Why Is Topping a Tree Bad?

The tree topping process is a method used to increase the size of a tree. It’s also sometimes called “head-cutting” or “topping out.” This procedure involves removing the top of the tree and leaving it in place while cutting back branches from below. 

The height of trees can be increased by as much as 50% with this technique, but it requires heavy equipment and skilled operators.

Tree topping is typically performed on young trees that are not yet mature enough to withstand the weight of environmentally damaging construction equipment such as bulldozers or cranes. 

Trees that have been topped can suffer reduced structural integrity, dieback at their new stumps, and may even topple over should they lose another top during their lifetimes. 

Trees are an important part of the ecosystem, and since they provide many benefits to people, it is important not to cut them down. Tree topping is when a tree’s top branches are removed so that it will grow taller. It may seem like a good idea at first because you get more light through your windows, but there are other ways to do this without harming trees!

Have you ever wondered why trees are topped? We will take a look into the benefits of tree topping and show you how to top your own.  When we have our trees topped, it is because they are too close to power lines or buildings, or people believe their tree is not as attractive anymore, so they want a change. There are many reasons for topping trees, and today we will be looking at some of them!

Why Topping Trees is a Bad Idea

Topping trees is a widespread practice that appears to offer a short term solution to a perceived problem. However, it is detrimental to the tree’s health and creates problems in the long term. The following explains why topping trees is a bad idea.

Topping is the indiscriminate cutting of tree branches or stubs to lateral branches that are not large enough to assume the terminal role. Other names for topping include “heading,” “tipping,” or “rounding over.”

Topping is often used to reduce the size of a tree. A homeowner may feel that a tree has become too large for his or her property or that tall trees may pose an unacceptable risk. Topping, however, is not a viable method of height reduction and certainly does not eliminate future risk.

Topping is ‘the indiscriminate cutting back of tree branches to stubs or lateral branches that are not large enough to assume the lead role’ (International Society of Arboriculture). The most common reasons given for topping are:

  • to reduce the size of a tree
  • to allow more light into a property
  • to reduce the number of leaves that fall in autumn

Homeowners sometimes feel that their trees have become too big and worry that they may pose a risk.

The irony is that topping is carried out to reduce the tree’s height in order to either make it safer or permit more light into the property, but it will, in fact, have the opposite effect and both increase the likelihood of failure and obscure more light.

How Topping Creates Hazards

After topping, multiple shoots develop within the end 20-25cm of the remaining branches.

Normal branches develop in a ‘socket’ of overlapping wood tissues, but these new shoots are only anchored in the surface layers of their new parent branches. These new shoots grow very rapidly as the tree attempts to restore the balance between the root system and the crown.

The end result is that, in just a few years, the tree is back to the size it was before it was topped; only it will have an increased crown density, and the new shoots will be prone to falling in strong winds.

Why Topping Creates Physiological Stress

Removing the trees branches removes the trees leaves, and removing the trees leaves removes the trees ability to produce food. In addition, removing the ability to produce food places the tree under severe physiological stress.

  • A tree under stress is more vulnerable to attack by pests and diseases. Pests by themselves are seldom responsible for the death of a tree; however, in a weakened condition, the tree may fail as a consequence.
  • Large, open pruning wounds expose the wood to decay, and the tree may lack sufficient resources to chemically “defend” the wounds against invasion by fungi.

Topping can remove 50 to 100 percent of a tree’s leaf-bearing crown.  Leaves are the food factories of a tree. So removing them can temporarily starve a tree and trigger various survival mechanisms. 

Dormant bugs are activated, forcing the rapid growth of multiple shoots below each cut. As a result, the tree needs to put out a new crop of leaves as soon as possible. If a tree does not have the stored energy reserves to do so, it will be seriously weakened and die.

When a tree is topped, up to 100% of the leaf-bearing crown is removed. As leaves are the food source for any tree, the absence of this food supply can temporarily starve the tree.

The starving tree responds by rapidly sending out multiple shoots from latent buds below each cut as a defensive action. This action is the tree’s survival mechanism to put out a new flush of leaves as soon as possible. Moreover, if the tree does not have sufficient stored energy reserves to respond in this way, it will seriously harm the tree, even leading to its premature demise. leaf-bearing

Topping Causes Decay


The preferred location to make a pruning cut is just beyond the branch collar at the branch’s point of attachment. The tree is biologically equipped to close such a wound, provided the tree is healthy enough, and the wound is not too large.

Cuts made along a limb, between lateral branches, create stubs with wounds that the tree may not be able to close. As a result, the exposed wood tissues begin to decay.

Correct pruning cuts are made just below the branch collar at the point of attachment. The tree is biologically equipped to close such a wound, provided the tree is healthy enough, and the wound is not too large. 

Cuts made along a limb between lateral branches create stubs with wounds that the tree may not be able to close. The exposed wood tissues begin to decay. Normally a tree will “wall off” or compartmentalise the decaying tissues, but few trees can defend against the multiple severe wounds caused by topping. The decay organisms are given a free path to move down through the branches.

Normally a tree will “wall off” or compartmentalise the decaying tissues. But few trees can defend against the multiple severe wounds caused by topping. The decay organisms are given a free path to move down through the branches.

The initial cost of topping a tree is the sum of money paid to the contractor for doing the work. The subsequent costs may include: 

  • If the tree survives, it will either need to be reduced again in a few years time, or resulting storm damage from shoot failure will have to be cleaned up.
  • If the tree dies, it will have to be removed.
  • Topped trees are prone to breaking and can be Topping is not considered to be an acceptable pruning practice therefore, any damage caused by branch failure from a topped tree may lead to a finding of negligence in a court of law.
  • Healthy, well-maintained trees can add 5 -18% to the value of a Damaged, and possibly diseased trees are a financial liability.

Topping Can Lead To Unacceptable Risk

The survival mechanism that causes a tree to produce multiple shoots below each topping cut comes at great expense to the tree. These shoots develop from buds near the surface of the old branches. Unlike normal branches that develop in a socket of overlapping wood tissues, these new shoots are anchored only in the outermost layers of the parent branches and are weakly attached.

New shoots grow quickly, as much as 20 feet in one year. Unfortunately, the shoots are prone to breaking, especially during windy or icy conditions. While the original goal was to reduce the risk by reducing the height, the risk of limb failure is now increased.

Alternatives To Topping

Sometimes a tree must be reduced in height or spread, such as for prevailing utility clearance. There are recommended techniques for doing do. First, small branches should be removed back to their point of origin. Second, if a larger limb must be shortened, it should be pruned back to a lateral branch that is large enough to assume the terminal role. 

This method of branch reduction helps preserve the natural form of the tree. However, sometimes the best solution is to remove the tree and replace with a species that is more appropriate for the site.

When the occasion arises, and it becomes necessary to modify the height or spread of a tree, consult or hire a professional arborist. An arborist will determine the type of pruning that is necessary to maintain or improve the health, appearance and safety of your trees.

Certified or professional arborists won’t use tree-damaging climbing spikes unless they remove the tree completely. They don’t list topping as a service in their yellow pages ad, and they’ll never suggest it to you as a solution because it’s not!

Tree Topping – What You Don’t Know is Killing Your Trees

Even though certain death is imminent, trees are still topped indiscriminately. They’re everywhere, trees disfigured and dying from years of abuse. Specifically, I’m referring to the misguided practise of tree topping. Also known as pollarding, stubbing, dehorning, heading and several other terms, it has risen to crisis proportions nationally over the last decade.

Topping is considered the most harmful tree pruning practise known. In fact, it’s regarded as such a serious crime against nature, one organisation’s major efforts over the past two decades has been to stop this “torture and mutilation”.

That group, Plant Amnesty, was founded in 1987 by Cass Turnbull of Seattle, WA. This nonprofit uses a unique blend of humour and controversy to raise public awareness of these “Crimes Against Nature” committed in our own backyards. Yet despite more than 20 years of spoken and written information, it remains a common practice.

According to The International Society of Arboriculture, the most common reason given for topping is to reduce the size of a tree, either because it has become too large for the property or a perception that it may pose a hazard. Ironically, topping is not a viable solution to reducing size or hazard.

Topping Does Not Control Size

As new shoots grow to replace their food-making factory desperately, they do so rapidly, sending up numerous “water sprouts”. In some species, these new shoots can grow up to 20 feet in one year. As a result, trees will grow back rapidly, and they don’t slow until they reach about their original size. It only takes up to a few years for that to happen.

Topping Does Not Make Trees Safer

The new growth that rapidly ascends from latent buds just below each cut is only anchored in the outermost layers of the parent branch. These weak attachments will never have the structural integrity of the original branch and can break off easily, even years later, when they are large and heavy.

When proper pruning cuts are made (just beyond a branch collar at the branch’s point of attachment), healthy trees are genetically equipped to close the wound. Improper cuts from stubs or topping don’t heal as readily and may not be able to close. The exposed wood creates decay, entry points and pathways for pests, diseases and destructive organisms to move into and through the branches.

Topping is Expensive

Recall that as a tree is topped, it rapidly grows back with thinner, weaker branching. Thus, topping to reduce size is a vicious cycle. Each cut sprouts multiple new branches, and the conditions become exponentially problematic with each cycle. Eventually, when the tree dies because of the effects of the cumulative stress and damage, even more money will likely be spent to remove it.

Tree Topping – 4 Reasons Why You Should NOT Top Trees 


Topping trees is an overused, crude pruning strategy where the Arborist cuts all the major branches such that blunt ends are left without any secondary branches left to assume the dominance. Topping is not an acceptable pruning method and should rarely or never be used. 

Yet, it is very common among inexperienced tree services. Topping trees not only diminishes the tree’s overall aesthetics but has serious negative repercussions for the tree’s structural integrity. Here are 4 reasons why topping hurts trees and should be avoided.

Counter ProductiveHealthy Tree vs Topped Tree

Topping is most often requested from the homeowner or recommended by an inexperienced tree care professional to ‘reduce the risk of tall, mature trees.’ However, this pruning strategy is counterproductive because most mature trees have extensive root systems that are adequately equipped to maintain stability.

Structural Failure

The sudden removal of copious amounts of foliage stresses the tree’s ability to provide itself with enough sustenance for the roots, branches and trunk. Topping greatly reduces the number of leaves on the tree, thus limiting how much energy the Topped Tree tree can produce and how much water it can release. 

In addition, topping isis extremely important to the trees health. For example, Elm (Ulmus) trees absorb up to 250-300  gallons of water per day. Therefore, if you were to top an Elm tree, you would only increase the likelihood of branch failure since it would not be able to release enough water to keep the limbs at a stable weight.


Topping usually results in improper cuts that do not heal properly. Proper cuts allow for the tree to heal itself naturally in a process called compartmentalisation. This is when the tree forms protective layers over the decaying or wounded area, such as a pruning cut. 

However, when a tree is topped, it does not allow for this natural healing process to take place. Thus, it allows for disease and decay to enter the tree, just likeTopped Tree, an open wound on a person’s skin allows bacteria to enter the body.

Higher Cost to Maintain

Topping encourages water sprout growth at 3 times the tree’s normal growth rate, thus creating a much more rigorous pruning schedule and contributing to the homeowner having to pay more to maintain the tree than if it was pruned properly. Of course, each tree has a different growth rate, but generally, if trees are pruned properly, they will only need to be trimmed every 2-5 years under normal circumstances.

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