What is ‘Tree Topping’ and Why is it Harmful?

What is ‘Tree Topping’ and Why is it Harmful?

What is ‘Tree Topping’?

Tree topping: is the practice of removing whole tops of trees or large branches (or trunks) from the tops of trees, leaving stubs or lateral branches that are too small to assume the role of a terminal leader.

Topping is often inquired by property owners or suggested by a untrained tree care professional. Although, it’s important to note, this pruning method is counterproductive due to mature tree root systems. Topping can interfere with a mature trees structure — destroying its natural form.

For trained tree professionals, tree topping is known as one of the most detrimental tree pruning practices today. Although, believed by some professionals to promote growth and to help save on tree costs — the risks far outweigh the benefits. Inexperienced tree workers like this method because it is much easier, faster and requires little skill or science.

Why is it harmful?

  • Sunburn or shock: the tree crown acts like a canopy. It shades the lower parts of the tree (i.e. the bark) from the direct sunlight. The abrupt loss of the leafy protection leaves tree bark vulnerable to sunscald and/or other risks. This could also affect or impact adjacent trees.
  • Loss of energy: with less leaves, there’s less photosynthesis and less nutrients being moved throughout the tree. When a tree loses its nutrient source, it reacts quickly to try and regain what it lost. Causing them to grow rapidly and shoot out long skinny branches. If a tree doesn’t get enough nutrients, it will starve and die.  
  • Accelerated growth: causing the tree to become bushier, shooting out long, skinny and weak limbs. Visually makes tree unattractive and unnatural form.
  • Structural failure: the sudden removal of copious amounts of foliage puts stress on the tree’s ability to provide itself with enough sustenance for the roots, branches and trunk.
  • At risk for insect infestation, decay and disease: the outcome of topping a tree usually results in bad cuts that either don’t heal properly or at all. When properly trimmed a tree will heal itself organically — a method called compartmentalization. During this process, the tree will gradually form protective layers over a decaying or wounded area. When topped, it doesn’t allow for healing to happen or for the wounds to properly. Fresh wounds create an open invitation for disease, bacteria, bugs or insects.


The notion of tree topping might seem like the easiest or cheapest option to regulate a tree’s size, but it’s likely to cause more harm than good. Although, yes, it’s true — some trees can fully recover from topping, the negative factors far outweigh the positive. ISA Arborists must sign a declaration that states they wont practice this tree topping. And if they do, they lose their Certification.

We highly recommend avoiding this practice by maintaining your trees properly from the beginning. If that’s not a possibility, there are other, safer methods practiced today that will keep your trees safe and beautiful. Our ISA Certified Arborists are always on call and happy to help with your tree service needs. Contact us today!

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