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Topping Trees is Bad, Mmmkay!

Topping trees, or the practice of cutting off the top of a tree, is a harmful practice that can have serious consequences for the health and longevity of trees. While it may seem like a quick fix to an overgrown tree, topping can actually lead to a host of problems that are both costly and time-consuming to fix. In my experience as an arborist, homeowners often request to have their trees topped because their tree is too tall. I have come to find that lack of education and understanding of tree biology is often the reason why this service is requested. After about a 5 - 10 minute conversation about the negative impacts topping has on trees, I can persuade these potential clients to go with a different style of pruning. Below is an illustration showing what topping looks like. Below the illustration, I have also listed some of the key points that I like to tell my clients when it comes to topping trees.

Here are some reasons why you should not top trees:

  • Topping can cause stress and damage to trees.

When a tree is topped, it removes a significant portion of the tree's canopy, which is the part of the tree that produces food through photosynthesis. This sudden removal of foliage can cause stress and shock to the tree, which can weaken the tree's immune system and make it more susceptible to pests and diseases.

Additionally, the new growth that sprouts from the topped branches is often weak and prone to breaking, which can cause further damage to the tree.


  • Topping can lead to decay and rot.

When a tree is topped, the cuts are often made in the middle of branches, leaving large, exposed wounds that are slow to heal. These wounds provide an entry point for insects and diseases, which can cause decay and rot to spread throughout the tree.

Trees compartmentalize decay by restricting the spread of decay with 3 chemical barriers encapsulating the decay/wounds with new wood; this process is called CODIT (Compartmentalization Of Decay In Trees). Over time, the decay and rot can weaken the tree's structure, making it more likely to break or fall in strong winds or storms.


  • Topping can make trees more vulnerable to environmental stressors.

Trees that are topped are often left with stunted, weak branches that are unable to produce enough food to sustain the tree. This can make the tree more vulnerable to environmental stressors, such as drought, extreme temperatures, and air pollution.

In addition, the loss of foliage can make it more difficult for the tree to absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide, which are essential for photosynthesis and growth.


  • Topping can be costly and time-consuming to fix.

If a tree has been topped, it may require extensive pruning and maintenance to restore its health and structure. This can be costly and time-consuming, and may require the help of a professional arborist.

In some cases, the damage caused by topping may be irreversible, and the tree may need to be removed entirely.





In addition to topping, another harmful tree pruning practice is clearance pruning. This practice involves removing the lower branches of a tree to provide clearance for buildings, vehicles, or pedestrians. Another common type of clearance pruning is to cut branches back to avoid hanging over homes, driveways, or property lines. While clearance pruning may seem like a reasonable solution to accommodate urban development, it can have similar negative impacts on the health and longevity of trees as topping. Like topping, clearance pruning can also leave large, exposed wounds that can lead to decay and rot, further weakening the tree's structure.


In conclusion, topping trees and clearance pruning are harmful practices that should be avoided at all costs. Instead of topping and clearance pruning, consider alternative methods of pruning, such as crown reduction or selective pruning, which can help maintain the health and structure of trees while preserving their natural beauty and ecosystem services.

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