By Linda Chalker-Scott, Associate Professor
Center for Urban Horticulture, University of Washington
"It's like a haircut - sometimes it's necessary and a tree can always grow out of a bad one."
In the three years I've written this column I've never addressed the issue of tree topping. Since plant scientists and arborists unanimously agree that tree topping is an unjustifiable tree management practice, I assumed that the word had trickled down to practitioners and their customers. Yet this summer, like every year before, brought a new crop of buzz-cut trees. It also brought a new crop of excuses (culled from the internet):
I'll preface this discussion with a caution that I am only referring to pruning trees not shrubs or hedges), and only to trees that are being maintained in their natural form. There are many types of formal pruning techniques including pollarding, pleaching, espaliering, etc. but they are not included in this discussion.
A reduction cut (also called drop-crotching or thinning to a lateral) is a method of pruning used to reduce the height of a tree. When done properly, branches are cut back to a lateral branch at least one-third the diameter of the limb being removed and large enough to outgrow lateral branches directly below. The lateral branch becomes the source of new terminal growth and subsequently the tree maintains a natural form. This is an appropriate pruning technique for decurrent or rounded trees but should never be used on excurrent or pyramidal trees except to remove multiple leaders.
Unfortunately, many tree cutters (certainly not certified arborists!) claim to thin to laterals when in reality they are topping the tree. Also known as hatracking, height reduction, canopy reduction, heading back or stubbing back, this type of pruning cut removes a terminal shoot back to a point where there is no appropriate lateral branch to take over the terminal role. In response, multiple shoots (or leaders) begin to compete for dominance, resulting in the infamous "hydra" look. What has now been created is a high-maintenance, potentially hazardous tree that must e constantly pruned. Pruning a tree yearly is certainly not environmentally sustainable or cost-effective - but does keep tree cutters in business!
There are plant health issues with tree topping: it's been demonstrated that sun damage, nutrient stress, insect attack, and decay result from unnecessary and incorrect pruning procedures. There are also aesthetic issues with tree topping: improperly pruned trees are ugly. For years, groups such as the International Society of Arboriculture and the Seattle-based PlantAmnesty have tried to educate professionals and homeowners about the horrors of tree topping, from both a plant health perspective and an aesthetic one; yet tree topping continues. Perhaps what's needed in today's tort-happy society is a liability perspective to make tree cutters and those that hire them sit up and take notice.
After topping, may epicormic shoots arise and develop into weakly attached branches. These branches, and the multiple leaders, continue to develop girth and weight and have an increasing potential to fall and cause damage to people and property. From a legal standpoint, the owner of such a tree is responsible for damages if it can be proved that the owner was negligent. If I were to tell my neighbor that her tree constituted a hazard and later this same tree fell and damaged my property, in some states I would be entitled to both actual and punitive damages. There is no doubt within the scientific and arborist communities that incorrect pruning can cause trees to become hazardous. Only one expert witness is needed to demonstrate this and the owner, or the landscape maintenance company, is found responsible.
If every property owner was given this last paragraph of information, I would bet that tree topping would come to a screeching halt. But as long as anyone with a pickup truck and a chainsaw is allowed to call himself a "landscape professional", property owners by and large will remain blissfully unaware. Property owners need to become educated: they need to insist on certified arborists for tree care and they need to make wise decisions before installing plant material that will outgrow its welcome.
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