P&PDL Picture of the Week for
March 26, 2007

Tree Topping - Don't Do It!

Mike Mickelbart, Assistant Professor, Department of Horticulture & Landscape Architecture, Purdue University

It doesn’t take much more than a quick glance around town (any town) to see trees that have been butchered! The technical terms for this butchering include topping, stubbing, and heading. Whatever the name, the practice results in very unattractive landscapes (to most people), and certainly leads to the eventual decline and possibly even death of the tree. There are a number of reasons for this, including sunburn of the suddenly exposed bark and large wound entry points for diseases and insects. Furthermore, you are dramatically reducing the leaf area of the plant (sometimes to zero!), which supplies the carbohydrates necessary for growth and overall health of the tree.

The most common reason for topping is to reduce the size of a tree. The best option is of course to plant a tree that will reach a size appropriate for the area in which it is planted. If you are dealing with a tree that someone else planted, you have two options: selective branch removal or replacing the tree.

Selective branch removal may be impossible if a tree is hitting power lines or buildings. If there is a stray limb that poses a potential threat, it should be removed back to the trunk instead of heading it back. Not only will the tree look better, but new shoots that arise from a headed-back limb are structurally weak, and will only pose another threat further down the line.

Unfortunately, the best thing to do is to start over! There is ample information on tree characteristics to make an informed choice on which tree to plant. Never forget the rule: “The right plant in the right place.”

Click image to enlarge

Tree topping

Purdue Plant & Pest Diagnostic Lab Purdue Cooperative Extension Service