Where did all the treetops go?

Tree with all limbs cut back almost to the main trunk
photo by Megan Shepherd
Lopped limbs: The topped tree on the left will never regain normal growth–instead it will send out a tuft of weak, spindly limbs, prone to storm damage and disease.

For almost half the year, our deciduous trees stand leafless, revealing either graceful silhouettes or a bunch of ugly brown-and-gray branches, depending on the eye of the beholder. These trees take many shapes and forms — rounded maples, haphazardly branched black locusts and stately oaks. But some look as if they’ve had a drastic haircut, the top of each limb lopped off or even hacked back to the trunk. Topped trees are cut back indiscriminately, leaving thick, knobby branches that produce a flush of slender shoots in the spring.

People top trees for a number of reasons, the main one being fear of damage during storms. Then again, a homeowner may want a small, round tree, and the big maples in the front yard just won’t oblige. Utility companies also top trees to keep them from interfering with power lines. And some people believe that topping can actually rejuvenate a tree.

But most of the arborists I spoke with cited a whole host of reasons for not topping trees. “Aesthetically and for the health of the tree, it is probably one of the worst things you could do,” says Pat Kavanaugh of Sherwood Forest Tree Service. “The trees look like arthritic stumps of a hand sticking up out of the ground. If it doesn’t kill the tree, it leads to sucker growth and heavy branching at a point of decay.” That heavy branching, he says, increases the likelihood of eventual breakage.

N.C. Cooperative Extension Agent Linda Blue concurs. “A topped tree puts out multiple sprouts that grow into weaker branches,” she explains. “Decay [from the cut] often spreads into the tree, and the sprouts are eventually attached to a hollow branch.”

Jason Callahan of Callahan’s Tree Service takes a different view, however. “Topping trees makes them more healthy,” he maintains. “If you don’t top it, some trees, like elm trees, start to die at the top.” He also reports that certain trees, such as maples, can be cut back “as far as you would like, and they will live.” It all comes down to what the homeowner wants, he says.

So is it purely an aesthetic preference? “Many older people like to keep trees in a little bowl shape that could be big shade trees,” says Bryant Anderson of Green Outdoors Landscaping & Nursery. “I won’t cut it all the way back, because I never want to take out more than a third of the foliage-producing branches. When someone requests [topping], I always first tell them I’d rather do it right.”

Topping is also a questionable method for controlling size. “If you have a 60-foot tree and you top it back to 30 feet, it will grow back — that’s where the tree needs to be,” says Scott Craft, who owns Arborcare of Asheville. Within two to five years, he says, the tree will have regained its height.

And far from eliminating pests such as Dutch elm disease, topping actually increases a tree’s susceptibility to disease, because cutting leaf-producing branches takes life from the tree.

There are many alternatives to topping. To alleviate safety concerns, homeowners can hire an arborist to assess the tree and perhaps prune it. Thinning out the crown and taking out dead branches can make a large tree safer. Just be sure to get professional advice before climbing a tree with a chain saw yourself to go after those dead branches.

“Trees that grow in open areas reach out with huge, low limbs that don’t occur in a forested setting,” notes Michael Davie of Canopy Tree Care & Consultancy. Therefore, he says, it’s imperative to plant large trees far enough away from utility lines and homes so extensive pruning isn’t necessary. Lower branches can also be removed to enhance visibility and clearance.

I asked just about everyone I talked with about the history of tree topping. That led me to the related practice of pollarding — removing all of the previous year’s growth from the trunk or branch. Begun when the trees are young, this practice — common in Europe and in some American cities — is frequently performed on shade trees in urban areas to keep them contained. But whereas topping is often done indiscriminately, pollarding is more of an art form, says Craft. It’s generally restricted to certain kinds of trees, such as the London plane tree, and if done properly, it has no long-term effects on the health of the tree, he maintains.

According to many sources, pollarding originated in Europe centuries ago, during a time when firewood for making charcoal (then used for fuel) was scarce. By “harvesting” branches off larger trees each year, people could maintain a continuing supply of firewood without killing the tree.

But all that has little to do with topping as we see it in WNC today. Whatever its origins, it’s a harmful practice, and homeowners would do better to resort to alternative methods to achieve their landscape goals. A number of smaller native trees provide beauty and color without interfering with existing structures. And when planting near power lines, it’s best to choose trees that grow to less than 30 feet tall. The fringe tree, downy serviceberry, Eastern redbud and Carolina silverbell are all small, low-maintenance trees with other attractive features, such as flowers and providing food for wildlife.

[Freelance writer and Xpress intern Megan Shepherd is garden manager at the North Lodge Bed and Breakfast in Asheville.]

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