Don't Top Trees

Don't Top Trees

Marianne C. Ophardt
Washington State University Cooperative Extension
Area Extension Agent

Topping has frustrated people who care about trees for overa century. John Davey, noted tree care expert, wrote in his book The Tree Doctor, published in 1907, that topping was “the work of ignorant tree men” and that “Nature does not form those beautiful and health-giving tops of shade trees to be cut to pieces to furnish ‘beer money’ for a lot of tree fools.” He referred to those people topping trees as “ignorant and nefarious frauds.”  Davey must called it pretty much the way it was back in 1907 and that’s the way it still is today.

Topping of trees isn’t just a regional phenomenon, it happens all over the country. Even in1907 Davey was railing against the topping practices of trees that practically denuded Philadelphia and other eastern cities.  Just why is topping so wrong?  The list of reasons is long:

  1. Topping starves a tree by reducing the amount of leaf surface and thereby reducing the tree’s ability to manufacture food for root growth, tree health, and tree vigor.
  2. Topping leaves stub cut ends of limbs open to attack by fungi and insects. Decay fungi can eventually create a structurally weak and hazardous tree. Topping increases an owner’s liability by creating a potentially hazardous tree.
  3. Topping shocks a tree by suddenly exposing shaded limbs to full sun, resulting in scalding and damage to the bark and tissues beneath the bark.
  4. Topping leads to a profusion of weakly attached sprouts the become dangerous as they grow larger and heavier with time.
  5. Topping leads to increased expenses from repeated follow-up pruning and the cost of eventual tree removal. Topping can also lead to lower property resale values.
  6. Topping disfigures a tree and robs the landscape of its natural beauty, form, and character.

Why do people top trees? That’s a question asked by many people care about trees.  In 1997, James R. Fazio and Edwin Krumpe received a grant to study why tree owners allowed their trees to be topped. In the study they went to owners of topped trees and asked them questions in a systematic way to find out the reasons that they topped their trees. They did this study in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.

The results of this study were published in Volume 8, Number 5 of the Arborist News, a publication of the International Society of Arborists in an article written by the same James Fazio, a professor in the Department of Resource Recreation and Tourism at the University of Idaho. Here is what Fazio and Krumpe found:

Who Tops Their Trees? People who topped trees tended to be the older segment of the population, not highly educated, and in the lower economic levels. Most of those approving the topping owned their own homes. One interesting finding was that a large amount of the topping (26 per cent) occurred relatively soon after the property was purchased.

Who Does the Topping? While many blame commercial tree pruners for topping trees, it appears that only about half of the topping is performed by commercial operators. About 43 per cent of the time either the owners, their relatives, or neighbors do the topping. 

Why Do they Top? Fazio confirmed what many of us had suspected, that “fear is the primary motivation for topping. Fifty-seven per cent of the residents worried that their tree was too high.  The safety of their house was the main concern.” Fazio and Krumpe also found that 24 per centtopped their trees because of concerns about storm damage, six per cent because they thought it was something you were supposed to do, and then there were a variety of other reasons. Only two of the 83 people surveyed preferred the appearance of topped trees.

At the conclusion of the article, Fazio offered his opinions on what can be done to put and end to topping.

  1. "Tree care companies are part of the problem and a key to the solution.” He points out that in every area it tends to be certain companies that perform the majority of topping. Fazio feels that short of establishing tree pruning ordinances, peer pressure may be the only way to stop companies and individuals who top trees.
  2. Legitimate arborists should make a point of advertising their affiliation with the International Society of Arborists, along with establishing and advertising “ a no topping” policy statement.
  3. Encourage communities of all sizes to have licensing requirements for commercial tree work. “The basis for this license need not be onerous, simply requiring a publicly stated business address and showing proof of workers compensation and liability insurance would go a long way to protect consumers.” It’s interesting to note that the study also included a survey of commercial operators. In trying to reach some of those listed in the phone book, a number of companies did not list a business address and refused to provide it when contacted. Would you want to hire a company that wouldn’t tell you where they were located?
  4. Fazio strongly feels that efforts to educate the public against topping trees should continue. While many of the arborists who responded to the survey felt that topping was declining, it’s still a common practice, especially in rural areas. A number of the companies surveyed still offer topping as one of their services. 

Fazio encourages everyone who cares about trees to wage a personal campaign against topping trees. There is plenty of research that indicates why topping is not good for the health of a tree and why topping is an economic disadvantage in the long run. However, we need to understand the needs of a tree owner. Educational efforts should not only include information about the “evils of topping,” but should also inform tree owners about how to reduce the size of their tree with better methods of pruning.  Fazio has fought his own campaign against topping. He is the editor of the Tree City USA Bulletin “Don’ Top Trees”published by the National Arbor Day Foundation.  It’s Fazio’s hope that by 2007, the centennial of Davey’s Tree Doctor, “we can look back on topping as a thing of the past.”