One sure fire way to identify a reputable tree service is to check their advertising. Obviously you would look for insurance and references but it is vital and equally important to look for the level of education and training in the field of tree care. If their yellow page ad, business card, or vehicle signage mentions topping, it is time to be concerned. Topping is not an approved practice in modern day arboriculture or in any way conducive to a healthy tree.
The picture at the right shows a Pin Oak that was recently topped. The subject tree is actually in east Memphis around the corner from my house and I was able to witness the crews who did the work. The tree was symptomatic of bacterial leaf scorch for some time before the topping occurred. From the looks of the outfit I am confident that they did not discourage the client’s wishes to cut out the effected limbs and may have in fact recommended it. The proper recommendation would have been removal or nothing at all. There is no cure for bacterial leaf scorch and it is actively affecting many Pin oaks in our area. The topping of the tree lead to its death soon after the drought of this past summer. Here are some of the reasons why the practice of topping leads to the premature decline of trees.
Why Not to “Top” - Eight Good Reasons
- Starvation: Good pruning practices rarely remove more than one-fourth of the crown, which in turn does not seriously interfere with the ability of a tree’s leafy crown to manufacture food. Topping removes so much of the crown that it upsets an older tree’s well-developed crown-to-root ratio and temporarily cuts off its food making ability.
- Shock: A tree’s crown is like an umbrella that shields much of the tree from the direct rays of the sun. By suddenly removing this protection, the remaining bark tissue is exposed and scalding may result. There may also be a dramatic effect on neighboring trees and shrubs. If the tree thrives in shade and the shade is removed, poor health or death may result.
- Insects and Disease: The large stubs of a topped tree have a difficult time forming callus. The terminal location of these cuts, as well as their large diameter, prevents the trees chemically based natural defense system from doing its job. The stubs are highly vulnerable to insect invasion and the spores of decay fungi. If decay is already present in the limb, opening the limb will speed the spread of the disease.
- Weak Limbs: At best, the wood of a new limb that sprouts after a larger limb is truncated is more weakly attached than a limb that develops more normally. If rot exists or develops at the severed end of the limb, the weight of the sprout makes a bad situation even worse.
- Rapid New Growth: The goal of topping is usually to control the height and spread of a tree. Actually, it has the opposite effect. The resulting sprouts (often called water sprouts) are far more numerous than normal new growth, and they elongate so rapidly that the tree returns to its original height in a very short time—and with a far denser crown.
- Tree Death: Some older trees are more tolerant than others. Beeches, for example, do not sprout readily after severe pruning, and the reduced foliage most surely will lead to death of the tree.
- Ugliness: A topped tree is a disfigured tree. Even with its regrowth, it never regains the grace and character of its species. The landscape and the community are robbed of a valuable asset.
- Cost: To a worker with a saw, topping a tree is much easier than applying the skill and judgment of good pruning. Therefore, topping may cost less in the short run. However, the true costs of topping are hidden. These costs include reduced property values, the expense of removal and replacement. If the tree dies, the loss of other trees and shrubs if they succumb to changed light conditions, the risk of liability from weakened branches, and increased future maintenance.
Is There Hope for a Topped Tree?
The simple answer is yes. Of course there are many variables and it is important to seek advice from a certified arborist. The overall health and any potential hazards must be assessed. If the tree is beyond hope, professional removal may be unavoidable. If the tree is healthy enough to overcome the stresses, there are some pruning practices such as crown restoration that can help rebuild a trees form over time. A soil sample should also be taken to test for any deficiencies or lack or organic matter around the root zone that may need to be corrected.
“The best time to plant a tree is 25 years ago, the second best is now!”—a very wise person
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