Tree Topping

By Justine Gartner | September 2, 2002
From Missouri Conservationist: Sep 2002

People don't buy snake oil anymore, and it's no longer popular to bleed patients with leeches, so why do Missourians continue to pay good money to butcher their trees?

Look around your neighborhood, and you'll probably see many examples of a hideous tree trimming practice called "topping," the severe cutting of tree limbs, usually from the top down. This complete removal or cutting back of large branches in mature trees leaves large, open wounds which subject the tree to disease and decay. Topping causes immediate injury to the tree and ultimately results in the tree's early death.

Other names for this malpractice include stubbing, heading, heading-back, stubbing-off, tipping, hatracking, topping-off, dehorning, lopping or roundover. Whatever it's called, topping is the worst thing to do to a tree.

Topping is still widely practiced throughout Missouri. People top trees for many reasons, all of them based on falsehoods and misconceptions. In fact, topping permanently destroys a tree's natural beauty and exposes it to disease and decay.

"Ultimately, a topped tree will cost more to maintain than a properly pruned tree," said Gene Brunk, Missouri Community Forestry Council Vice-Chair and Anti Tree Topping Public Service Campaign Chair.

Don't Top Your Tree

To advocate proper tree management practices, the Missouri Community Forestry Council, in partnership with Forest ReLeaf of Missouri, launched a public service campaign titled, "Experts Agree Don't Top Your Tree." The campaign is designed to educate people about the misconceptions that surround the common practice of tree topping and to offer alternative solutions to tree problems.

The Missouri Community Forestry Council (MCFC) is a grassroots organization composed of individuals interested in community forestry issues in their hometowns. MCFC is composed of nine active regional councils and a statewide council that assists owners' associations in the management of urban and community forests.

"The Missouri Community Forestry Council's purpose in sponsoring this campaign is to educate the public on proper tree care and to dispel many of the misconceptions regarding tree care," said MCFC Chair Bill Reininger. "As the only statewide grassroots community forestry organization in Missouri, MCFC has the desire and technical knowledge to help improve Missouri's urban tree resources. Tree topping is a major problem that needs addressing. We hope our efforts in the long run will help to change people's perceptions and behavior regarding tree care."

Forest ReLeaf of Missouri administers the campaign, providing expertise in media relations, fundraising, grants coordination and overall campaign strategies. Forest ReLeaf maintains the toll-free (877) 4-NOTOP telephone hotline. Homeowners can call this number for tree pruning information. The campaign has been so successful that 26 states have inquired about it.

"The campaign has exceeded all expectations, given its impact both in Missouri and throughout much of the United States," said Nancy von Brecht, Forest ReLeaf executive director .

Topping vs. Tree Pruning

A topped tree is easy to spot. Its natural shape has been destroyed, while a properly pruned tree looks well-shaped, symmetrical and healthy. In fact, a tree that is pruned correctly will show no evidence of alteration. With proper pruning, an arborist will spend time carefully selecting and removing branches.

Proper pruning is an important part of caring for and protecting the health of your trees. In fact, many tree care professionals recommend that homeowners start early and continue proper pruning throughout the life a tree.

The Right Approach

A tree is a valuable asset. As long-term investments, trees require careful decisions and the occasional advice of a professional. If you are unable to do the work yourself, you may want to consider hiring a professional. Make sure you find a competent, insured and certified tree care professional.

"In Missouri, there are trained tree care professionals, and there are tree cutters," said Robert L. Krepps, Forestry Division Administrator with the Missouri Department of Conservation. "Tree cutters tend to be untrained, uninsured, inexperienced and minimally equipped. Many don't stay in business long,"

"Missouri does not have a regulatory group responsible for tree care standards or the quality of work performed by tree care providers," he added. "Basically, that means it is not against the law for a firm to advertise that it is a tree specialist, or that an individual is an arborist, even if they have no training in tree care."

There are many tree service companies in Missouri. Some have highly trained and competent employees, but others have employees who lack basic tree identification and tree care knowledge. Do your homework and select a company with skilled, trained employees.

Ask if the company you are considering is a member of an arborist association. The St. Louis Arborist Association expects its members to abide by the accepted national pruning standards, which do not advocate tree topping.

"We feel that the national standard is a good baseline to educate customers as well as professionals in the industry," said David Hill, president of the St. Louis Arborist Association. "It is one way we have to eliminate unprofessional practices like tree topping and climbing with spurs from the industry."

Selecting professional tree care in Missouri is a worthwhile investment of time and money. Inappropriate tree care could lead to the slow death of a favored tree which, with proper care, could live to be more than 100 years old.

Find out if the individual or company carries professional certification, particularly through the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). ISA certifies individuals who meet a minimum experience requirement and pass an industry-based exam. A list of ISA Certified arborists in your area can be found on the Internet.

Tree Topping Myths

Myth: Topping a tree will reduce storm damage and make the tree easier to maintain.

Topped trees can regain their original height in as little as two years. The fast growing, extremely long and loosely attached shoots caused by topping will be more susceptible to breakage and storm damage. Ultimately, a topped tree requires more attention in the future than a properly pruned tree.

Myth: Topping invigorates a tree.

Topping immediately injures a tree and starts it on a downward spiral. Topping wounds expose the tree to decay and invasion from insects and disease. Also, the loss of foliage starves the tree, which weakens the roots, reducing the tree's structural strength. While a tree may survive topping, its life will be significantly reduced.

Myth: Topped trees will add value to your property.

Topped trees are ugly and may reduce your property values. Also a topped tree can become hazardous and cause property damage, making it a liability.

Myth: Topping is the best way to keep a tree from getting too big.

A tree's genetics and environment determine how tall it will grow. Topping just shortens the life of the tree and creates long term maintenance problems.

Topping vs. Pruning


  • Branches are shortened, leaving stubbed-off branch ends.
  • Sprouting occurs near the ends of cut branches. Branches quickly grow back, only thicker.
  • Regrowth is weakly attached and breaks easily in storms.
  • Can cause dead branch stubs. Maximizes chances for future decay inside branches and trunk.
  • Tree quickly regains original size, but with weak branches.
  • Especially destructive if applied to entire tree.
  • Produces whole population of weak, unhealthy trees over time.

Recommended Pruning

  • Whole branches growing in undesirable directions are removed.
  • Only offending branches are removed.
  • Future storm damage is minimized.
  • Tree can grow over pruning wounds. Chances for decay are minimized.
  • Tends to lengthen time needed between prunings.
  • Works with natural growth habit of tree.
  • Encourages trees to grow safe and sound.

When seeking a tree service, check the company's topping policy. If they top, don't let them near your trees.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Bertha Bainer