Published on 05/27/98

For Shame: Topless Trees a Blight on Landscape

There is a blight on the landscape that forever damages great trees. It's a blight arborists and foresters have fought for two decades. It's called topping.

People have been told their trees are too tall, too big or due for a "haircut." They feel compelled to allow trees to be flat-topped, rounded-over, tipped, hedged, hat-racked or buzzed -- all terms for topping. Whatever you call it, the result is abused and seriously injured trees.

Trees are prone to abuse because of their strength, longevity and resilience to damage. Because trees survive abusive cutting practices, people believe they have done no harm.

If only trees could whimper or moan, we would all see less tree damage in our yards and along our streets. To take care of trees requires understanding how they grow and thrive.

Trees grow in segments. Children's toys can help us see how trees are structurally connected. Interlocking building blocks, or modular toys, come apart the way they went together -- in parts.

Trees grow starting from a bud or leaf zone, called a "node." The tree pushes out a long segment of twig, called an "internode," and then forms another node. Long intervals of internodes separate short sections of nodes, where the leaves, flowers and buds are found.

The node and internode growth patterns of trees represent growth units. They're like Tinker Toys, which have long rods (internodes) separating round hubs (nodes). To take Tinker Toys apart, you don't cut the long rods in half. You pull them apart at the nodes.

Trees and Tinker Toys are segmented and modular. You build (or grow) each in segments and then, if needed, take them apart in segments.

Reduce trees' size, if you must, by removing growth units. Proper pruning uses tree anatomy as a guide to properly control growth.

The highly abusive and permanently damaging process of topping a tree cuts branches anywhere. Tree parts aren't removed in segments at their bases or at connecting nodes.

Topped trees have branches cut in the middle of long internodes. This type of stub-cutting, hacking or tipping assures the tree of further damage to come. They lead to pest attacks, storm damage, decay problems and the need to cut further.

Many people see poor tree care practices surrounding them and believe the wrong way is right. If you want your trees' life shortened, your safety threatened and your liability risks magnified, then use these topping cutting methods.

On the other hand, if you want good tree health, strong structure and reasonable safety, nodal cutting procedures work best. Pruning at the segment nodes is scientifically proven to help trees grow and remain safe.

If you can see stubs of branches cut off in their middles on the outside edge of the tree crown, you see a victim of topping.

If you can see large, round, branch cross-cuts with many new sprouts growing around them, you see a victim of topping.

If you can see large, squared-off cuts high in the crown without a large, supporting side branch, you see a victim of topping.

Don't allow your valuable trees to be victims. Trees don't -- they can't -- heal wounds. They just seal off and grow around wounds. Once damaged, a tree is injured forever.

It's critical that you help prevent abusive cutting practices even if it is only one time.

Trees provide so many things to our lives and communities. Don't allow topless trees to blight the landscape for another generation. We must all work to stop tree-illiterate maintenance practices like topping.

Kim Coder is a forester with the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.