I was asked to “top” a tree

On Monday I got a call from a man who wanted me to give him a price to prune a tree.  He told me on the phone that he would want me to cut a considerable amount off of the top.  Yesterday I went to look at the tree.  It was the only tree in the back yard, and would have been a very nice tree except that it had obviously been “topped” about 5 years ago.

topped tree

Can you see where the topping cuts were made?

The crown of the tree was made up of clusters of long, weakly attached sprouts as the result of the trees’ growth response to the previous incorrect pruning.

What I now need to explain to him (he wasn’t  home at the time of my visit) is that cutting the top off of his tree again will not achieve anything positive for him.

If he doesn’t want the tree to become “too big” and threatening to his safety, re-topping the tree would actually be completely counterproductive to his goal.  Because what happens when a tree is wounded this way is that (if it’s healthy and has the necessary stored energy) it produces vigorous new growth.  This tree has grown approximately 15 feet in the last 5 years.  Normal annual growth for this species (it’s a sugar maple) is about 6 inches.  If NOTHING had been done 5 years ago, it wouldn’t be any bigger (maybe even not as big) as it is now.  And all that new vigorous sprout growth is less sturdy that the natural branching structure would have been – the point of attachment of each sprout is made up of only 5 growth rings, plus there is a column of internal decay below each of the old topping cuts.

The sprout attachments are weak, tight-angle crotches.

Now, after 5 years the trees growth rate is becoming closer to normal.  I could do some corrective pruning – cut away the dead stubs, thin the sprouts to remove the excess and  retain the stronger ones, and train for  future growth  that will produce the strongest possible branch structure.  This will be a pretty lot of work, but it would be worth doing – it’s a young, vigorous tree without any other problems, and there is plenty of space for it to grow to its natural size.  The tree would  have needed  way less work (at way less cost!) if all it needed now was normal maintenance pruning.  But  it will need nothing more than a little minor pruning every few years once we take care of the corrective work.

But first I have to explain all this to the customer and convince him not to just repeat the previous mistake.

TOPPING IS MALPRACTICE!  Those who perform it are either ignorant of tree biology, or unscrupulous!

P.S. – The next time we do a removal of a tree that was damaged by topping I’ll post some autopsy pictures.

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