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Is it a good idea to top trees?
Cutting back the branches of large trees to stubs, commonly referred to as topping, tipping, heading, stubbing or dehorning, is senseless and damaging to trees. Contrary to what some people may say, it is NOT good for the tree. The rapid growth which occurs after topping is NOT beneficial to your trees. Only in the rarest of occasions might it be warranted. Topping not only destroys the beauty of a tree, but makes it more vulnerable to attack by insects and diseases. The weak, crowded shoots which develop at the cuts are also very subject to breakage in the future if regular corrective pruning is not followed. In short, don't do it. You are only asking for trouble if you do.
If the size of a tree needs to be reduced there are other alternatives. First decide if it is feasible to reduce the size of the tree. Reducing the size of a large shade tree planted under overhead utility lines may not be feasible. It may be best to remove the plant and replant with a smaller stature tree. In other locations, such as in a yard or near a home where the size of a tree needs to be reduced some for scale or to reduce the chances of breakage, drop crotch pruning can be done. Drop-crotch pruning is a method that combines thinning as well as reducing the overall size of the tree. In drop-crotch pruning, branches are cut back to a natural crotch or branch rather than cut back to a stub. This retains the natural appearance of the tree while reducing overall size and retains existing branches as leaders thus reducing the proliferation of shoots which result from topping.
For advice on pruning your trees contact a qualified arborist. Pruning trees requires proper equipment and can be a very dangerous activity for the untrained. A qualified arborist can advise you on alternatives to topping your trees as well as many other aspects in preserving the health and vigor of your trees.
If you have trees which have been topped, a qualified arborist should be consulted to recommend or carry out corrective pruning. Many of the crowded branches will need to be removed and the trees will need to be monitored for signs of insects, disease and decay. More than likely, several prunings done over five or more years may be needed to correct the problems caused by topping.
A listing of arborist who belong to the St. Louis Arborists Association is available from the Garden or the Missouri Department of Conservation.