We are entering the time of year where heavy snow or ice can cause tree limbs to break. Many of these trees will have large broken branches. Properly repairing trees with this type of damage is often difficult and more time-consuming than the simpler job of “topping” the trees. Topping is very destructive and is not recommended.


What is topping?

Topping is the indiscriminate and drastic cutting of a tree branch or branches. It has been referred to as heading, stubbing, tipping, lopping, rounding-over and dehorning. No matter what the name, topping disfigures trees and is detrimental to tree structure, health and value.

Trees may be topped because they grow too large for the places where they were planted, or people become afraid of their large size. Trees are also topped because proper tree pruning methods are not used.


Topping hurts a tree in many ways

• Death — In the most severe cases, topping can lead to the death of a tree.

• Unsafe structure — Topping causes the quick growth of dense, weak, upright branches called watersprouts. Sprouts caused by topping are often weakly attached. They grow so rapidly a tree can regain its original height in a short time with a dense and straggly crown of undesirable and weak wood.

• Decline in health — Topping removes a tree’s food production factory (leaves) and food stored in limbs that are cut. Topping also causes a tree to use valuable food stored in the trunk and roots to regrow limbs and branches. Topping redistributes the use of energy and has a substantial impact on the physiology of a tree. Although debated, topping also can place a tree under stress and affect its tolerance to further injury.

• Ugliness — Topping replaces the natural form and beauty of a tree with unsightly branch stubs, large wounds, broom-like branch growth and unhealthy branches.

• Value — Because of the negative impacts on appearance, structure and health, topping can reduce the value of a large ornamental tree by thousands of dollars.

• Insects and diseases — The drastic removal of limbs by topping exposes remaining limbs to sunshine. This sudden exposure to light and heat can kill or damage a tree’s living tissue (the bark and cambium) and is called sunscald. Trees have difficulty protecting themselves from sunscald and the large wounds that result from topping. These sunscald wounds are highly vulnerable to insect invasion and the spores and actions of decay fungi.


— Scott Eckert is a Kansas State Research and Extension agent for Harvey County. Horticulture is his specialty. The Harvey County Extension office can be contacted at 284-6930.