Tree Topping: A Tragedy

Have you seen trees like these before?

Unnaturally shaped, with stubby limbs and no leafy crown to speak of. Some of these trees may have even begun to take on a Medusa-like appearance, with an abundance of long, thin shoots protruding where healthy branches once existed. In short — they’re an eyesore. So what causes trees to look like this?

It goes by many names: Tree topping. Hat-racking. Heading. Rounding over. Often, this method is employed when tree owners are concerned that a tree has outgrown its location and want to reduce the height, or fear that because of its large size, the tree poses a higher risk of falling branches or tipping over. With topping, limbs are cut indiscriminately in order to shorten the height of the tree, leaving a mass of stubs and a drastically altered shape. The unfortunate reality is that topping is an ineffective solution to these concerns, and often creates the opposite effects of the ones intended. In fact, tree topping is widely considered the single most harmful pruning practice.


There are a few key reasons why tree topping is so detrimental to tree health.

Topping can remove the majority of the tree’s leaf-producing crown. Leaves are food producers, and without them, the tree will risk starvation. In this stressed state, a topped tree will rapidly start sending out “water sprouts” around each of the pruning cuts in order to produce leaves as quickly as possible. In the short term, the tree will have been reduced in height, but will rapidly regain its size and sadly will have lost its proper form and structure. 

Additionally, while the original intent may have been to reduce the tree’s risk of potential damage, the new growth is weakly attached and highly prone to breakage or branch failure, posing an even likelier threat to surrounding property.

When a pruning cut is made correctly, just past the branch collar, the tree is able to seal over the wound and heal adequately. In the case of the topped trees shown here, the numerous improper cuts create many opportunities for disease, insect infestation and decay and will seriously jeopardize their health.

Finally, and perhaps for many, most importantly – tree topping is expensive! A topped tree will ultimately cost more to maintain because of its weakened structure, and will be a greater liability for the owner. A healthy, mature tree can add thousands of dollars in property value, but a poorly maintained, disfigured tree can actually decrease that value (by anywhere from 20% to 100%, according to the Virginia Cooperative Extension).



Thankfully, there are plenty of highly favorable alternatives to tree topping:

  1. Before the tree is even planted: the need to aggressively prune a tree that has outgrown its space can be prevented by considering “Right Tree, Right Place” when determining where and what to plant. A tree should be selected with its mature height and any conflicting surrounding features (overhead utilities, buildings) in mind.
  2. Drop-crotch pruning (“crown reduction”): a method of reducing size while retaining the tree’s natural form. The overgrown branch will be cut back to a crotch with a lateral branch, causing the tree to direct water and nutrients to that branch. The lateral branch will then be able to assume the terminal growth responsibility.
  3. Thinning: If pruning is being done for the purpose of increasing visibility, consider thinning out interior and crossing branches to allow for a less dense crown and for more light to come through. This method will preserve the crown and the tree’s natural form while achieving the desired effect.
  4. Limbing up: Again, to achieve greater visibility, the lower limbs of a tree can be pruned to create a higher line of sight underneath the crown. This practice is often performed on street trees to allow space for pedestrians and vehicles to pass underneath.

When seeking tree care and advice, always look for a licensed and bonded company with certified arborists on staff. Visit our Tree Maintenance Providers page for a list of some reputable tree care companies in Louisville.


Trees Are Good. Why Topping Hurts Trees © 2011 International Society of Arboriculture.
Eisenhower, John. The Difference Between Topping and Crown Reduction Pruning© 2009 Integrity Tree Service, Inc. 
Photo credits:
(1) Mike Hayman © 2017
(2) City of Mukilteo, WA
(3) Mike Hayman © 2017
(4) Google Maps © 2015
(5) Mike Hayman © 2017