Topping a Tree Destroys Its Structure

Topping trees is not a healthy pruning method. It results in crowded branches, disease and split limbs.

Recently I have started to do limited pruning of ornamental trees and a few shrubs like roses, crape myrtle and lilac.

In the process, the most frequent issue that I have to correct is topping of trees. Many homeowners plant trees and then, within a few years, start cutting off the top of the plant.

There are usually three reasons this is done. First, many people just will not read and believe the plant tag, and buy a plant that gets much taller and wider than they want. The second reason is that “topping” makes some plants produce more blooms. The third reason is that some homeowners think that plants need to look like a ball or a box. Surprisingly many of them start a consultation with the phrase “I want my yard to look natural.” Perfect box and ball shapes are seldom found in nature.

When you top a tree, you destroy the structure of the tree.

If you want a tree or shrub to grow to a certain height, then buy a plant that matures at that height. If you want a plant to bloom more, then fertilize it with a fertilizer high in phosphoric acid (the middle number in the analysis on the bag) If you want a “natural look,” stop trying to make it look like a box or a ball.

Once every year or two, you can shear your shrubs to make them fuller and to cut off any branches that seem to have a mind of their own. The dead tops of most perennials need to be heavily pruned in winter, but only to remove the dead material.

When you top trees, the plant sends out up to a dozen or more shoots from a point near the cut. The tree cannot have a dozen branches all starting at the same point. This crowding results in disease and split limbs as the branches mature and eventually destroy the structure of the tree.

The homeowners that insist on topping trees are just creating a lot of work while destroying their trees. Those that buy shrubs, then spend time trying to reduce the size of the shrub, need to read and believe the plant tags.

Mike Dooley is the designer and owner of Dooley Landscape Designs. Visit his website at He can be reached at 505-400-0257.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.