Tree Topping Information – Does Tree Topping Hurt Trees

Tree Topping Information – Does Tree Topping Hurt Trees

By: Jackie Carroll

Many people think that you can shorten a tree by cutting off the top. What they don’t realize is that topping permanently disfigures and damages the tree, and may even kill it. Once a tree is topped, it can be improved with the help of an arborist, but it can never be completely restored. Read on for tree topping information that can help you make better decisions about shortening trees.

What is Tree Topping?

Topping a tree is the removal of the top of the central stem of a tree, called the leader, as well as the upper main branches. They are usually sheared off at a uniform height. The result is an unsightly tree with thin, upright branches called water sprouts at the top.

Topping a tree seriously affects its health and value in the landscape. Once a tree is topped, it is highly susceptible to disease, decay and insects. In addition, it reduces property values by 10 to 20 percent. Topped trees create a hazard in the landscape because the branch stubs decay and break. The water sprouts that grow at the top of the tree have weak, shallow anchors and are likely to break off in a storm.

Does Topping Hurt Trees?

Topping damages trees by:

  • Removing much of the leaf surface area needed to produce food and the food storage reserves.
  • Leaving large wounds that are slow to heal and become entry points for insects and disease organisms.
  • Allowing strong sunlight to enter the central parts of the tree, resulting in sunscald, cracks and peeling bark.

Hat rack pruning is cutting off lateral branches at arbitrary lengths and damages trees in ways similar to topping. Utility companies often hat rack trees to keep them from interfering with overhead lines. Hat racking destroys the appearance of the tree and leaves stubs that will eventually decay.

How Not to Top Trees

Before you plant a tree, find out how large it will grow. Don’t plant trees that will grow too tall for their environment.

Drop crotching is cutting back branches to another branch that can take over their function.

Suitable branches are at least one-third to three-fourths the diameter of the branch you are cutting.

If you find it necessary to shorten a tree but aren’t sure how to do it safely, call a certified arborist for help.

This article was last updated on

Read more about General Tree Care

What is Pruning? The Importance, Benefits and Methods of Pruning

In the forest, trees are free to play by their own rules. They can spread their limbs out, stretch their branches up as high as they’ll grow, and send old, weak limbs down to the forest floor in a freefall.

The trees in our backyards and along our streets don’t have quite as much freedom–and for good reason. Of course, we want our trees to look natural while also ensuring they grow strong and don’t become a safety risk.

…and that’s where pruning comes in! While you may have heard the term and know it has something to do with trimming your trees, read on to learn exactly what pruning is, why we do it and how it’s done.

The day apple trees are planted is the day to begin to train and prune for future production. Too often backyard growers plant apple trees and leave them untended for several years. This neglect results in poor growth and delayed fruiting.

Apple trees are trained to a modified leader system. The tree should be trained with one central leader or main trunk in the center, with several wide-angled limbs spaced around the leader. The tree should mature to a pyramidal shape.

The picture below shows correct and incorrect pruning of an apple tree.

Use “spur-type” strains or grow apples on dwarfing rootstock to make training and pruning easier. Spur-type and dwarf trees produce fruit at an earlier age than full-sized trees. These trees are also easier to manage and harvest than full-sized trees are.

If one-year-old unbranched “whips” are planted, head to the desired height – about 28 to 32 inches for standard and 30 to 35 inches for spur-type and semi-dwarf trees.

When the buds grow out to 4 to 5 inches, select a central leader and scaffold branches. Scaffolds (side branches) should be spaced at least 6 inches apart vertically and at equal intervals around the trunk. Between three and six branches may be selected as scaffolds during the first summer or may be left to grow throughout the season and selectively pruned out during the dormant season.

If young trees are branched when they come from the nursery or garden center, remove any broken branches and those that form angles less than 45° with the main trunk. Eliminate competing leaders by removing the less desirable branch. Head-back the central leader by one-third in the second year. Make the cut close to a bud that is growing in a suitable direction or to a lateral branch. Keep pruning to a minimum during the early years to encourage the trees to produce fruiting wood.

Pear trees naturally develop narrow angled, upright branches. To train properly angled scaffold branches, either weight the branches, tie branches to pegs in the ground or brace the branches apart with spacer sticks.

Tree Trimming Service Costs

As with tree pruning, maintenance costs average between $400 and $600, depending on tree type, maintenance needed and the expertise level of your professional. Always ask for a quote before proceeding with work.

Several services available to keep your trees healthy and your yard beautiful include:

  • Tree Inspection: $30-$150. A pro inspects the state of your trees and evaluates whether any kind of work needs to be done to improve its health.
  • Deep Root Fertilization: $50-$300. Certified arborists use specialized equipment to send fertilizer deep in the ground to reach the deepest roots. However, to save money, consider doing this yourself with DIY tree spikes.
  • Tree or Trunk Injection: $50-$100. The Tree injection (also called trunk injection) technique helps prevent and restore trees suffering from disease or insect issues.
  • Insect & Disease Control: $50-$250. Just like humans, trees can get sick or infected by parasites. Certified arborists identify diseases and suggest treatments.

Tree Topping Cost

Tree topping, also known as hat racking or rounding over, costs the same as any other pruning method or about $400 to $800. But removing the main trunk of a tree without enough mature supporting structure can lead to disease, decay and can outright kill the tree. The only time any qualified professional or arborist will advise topping a tree is if you plan to later remove it completely. Tree removal costs $400 to $1,200 on average, or just slightly more than pruning. Skip the topping step and costs and just remove the tree outright.

Cost to Cut Tree Branches

The cost to cut tree branches, another name for trimming or pruning, runs $200 to $800 on average. But it depends on the height of the tree. Short species, under 30 feet, don’t require heavy equipment or often even ladders and so cost far less than an 80-foot-tall oak.

What is Pruning?

Pruning is the process of cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems to promote healthy plant growth. Most plants, including trees, shrubs and garden plants like roses benefit from different methods of pruning and maintenance. Pruning at the wrong time of the year does not necessarily kill your plants, but regular improper pruning may cause damaged or weakened plants.

To help you take the guesswork out of pruning, we’ll go over the common tree and plant types found in the southern United States and explain when and how to prune them.

How to Prune Trees

Leaves are important to trees because they help convert sunlight into energy. For that reason, when pruning you want to make sure you don’t remove more than 30% of a tree’s live foliage at one time. There are a few different types of pruning, each which you can do to achieve slightly different results.

Crown lifting

If you want to provide clearance over streets and paths, you may want to perform crown lifting, which is removing the lower branches in the crown. A major benefit is that crown lifting allows more light to pass beneath the crown. This approach is unlikely to alter the tree or harm its top or crown. Lifting means that you are not pruning the more visible higher parts of the crown. When pruning, avoid leaving a clear stem (without branches and leaves) that is more than one-third of the tree’s total height, since branches have a significant role to play in controlling the sway of a tree in high winds.

Crown thinning

As you might guess, crown thinning means removing select branches throughout the crown without significantly changing the shape of the tree’s crown. Crown thinning increases both air circulation and light penetration in the crown. The focus of thinning should be removing the branches that are small in diameter however, removing too many branches from the crown’s center can result in a tree with a poor structure and little ability to prune it in future seasons. Be careful to avoid long, thin branches and minimal foliage in the lower parts. A tree with these characteristics may be more prone to swaying and may be more vulnerable when it is very windy.

Crown reduction

If you have a tree that has outgrown its space, you might consider crown reduction. Crown reduction shrinks the overall size of the crown by shortening its branches to boost growth. When possible, aim to maintain a flowing branch line matching the natural shape of the tree. Since it often results in large wounds at the branch ends and decay, crown reduction is only done when necessary due to space issues. We rarely recommend crown reduction for trees which take the shape of a pyramid, such as conifers and birches.


Pollarding is a maintenance routine that is started when a tree is young and then repeated at frequent intervals throughout the tree’s life. This technique is traditionally used on willows. Typically small-diameter tree branches are pruned back to the secondary branches off the main stem. Regrowth since the last pollard is then removed back to the tree’s “knuckles.” You may find other gardening sources incorrectly refer to pollarding as the removal of all branches of a mature tree. This practice leaves large wounds and a tree with no foliage with which to produce food. Since this method causes considerable stress to the tree, we recommend against this technique.

How to Prune Shrubs

For most deciduous shrubs, there are three types of pruning: thinning out, gradual renewal and rejuvenation pruning.


If you want to create a more open plant, you may consider thinning out, which is when a branch or twig is cut off at its point of origin from either the parent stem or ground level. Thinning provides room for growth of side branches and will not stimulate excessive new growth in most shrubs. Thinning out also allows plants to be maintained at a specific height and width for many years. We recommend thinning out the oldest and tallest stems first using hand pruning shears.

Gradual Renewal

With gradual renewal pruning, some of the tallest and oldest branches are removed at ground level (or slightly above) on an annual basis. Some thinning may be necessary to shorten long branches or maintain a symmetrical shape.


To rejuvenate an old, overgrown shrub, we recommend removing approximately one-third of the oldest, tallest branches at ground level (or slightly above) before new growth starts.

How to Prune Fruit Plants and Flowers, Including Roses

Now that we have covered all the different ways to prune trees, you may be wondering what to do to promote healthy growth of flowering and fruit-bearing plants. Read on to learn more about year-round care for these types of plants.

Flowering Plants

If a shrub is grown for its flowers, carefully choose when you prune it to minimize disrupting its blooming. Spring flowering shrubs typically bloom on last season’s growth and should be pruned shortly after they bloom. Spring blooming trees and shrubs may start to develop new buds as soon as the old buds have fallen. These will need to be pruned shortly after flowering, or you may risk pruning off the new buds when trying to discard the old growth.

Fruiting Plants

Fruit-bearing plants are best pruned while they are dormant, in late winter through early spring. The primary goal in pruning is to remove old, gray-colored, slow-growing shoots, which are non-fruitful. This objective is particularly true for peach trees. Removing 40 percent of the peach tree annually stimulates new growth each spring. Pruning helps to lower the fruiting zone to a height that makes hand harvesting from the ground possible. Also, it opens the center of the tree to increase air circulation, reducing disease pressure while still allowing sunlight into the tree to accelerate fruit color. Finally, pruning is needed to remove diseased or dead shoots, rootstock suckers and any water shoots.


Roses need pruning to keep them attractive and productive in your garden. Typically this is done during the mid-winter while rose bushes are mostly dormant and have much less foliage. Some fundamental objectives of pruning roses that most rose experts or “rosarians” agree upon include the removal of weak, dead and diseased canes removal of distorted (crooked or twisted) canes and crossing (or conflicting) canes. Another important objective of pruning a rose is to open up the center of the plant to allow air and sunlight to penetrate. The rose bush’s shape and growth may depend upon the type or variety of the plant. Pruning also maintains a good balance between older and younger growth appropriate to the type, health and age of the plant and its usage (e.g. general landscape, specimen, cut flower, etc.).

When thinking about how to prune roses, it’s important to note that well placed, clean-pruning cuts significantly reduce the incidence of cane canker disease, the leading cause of deadwood in rose bushes. Rose pruning should be done with hand pruners. We suggest using a bypass style pruner rather than an anvil-style pruner.

What Equipment You Need

Learning which plants to prune and how to prune them are important, but using the correct tools is also important. Select tools that will do the job, keep a sharp edge and are relatively easy to sharpen and handle.

Garden centers and home improvement stores carry many kinds of hand pruning shears. Most of them are designed for cutting stems of up to 1/2 inch in diameter. Do not attempt to use hand pruning shears to cut larger branches, as this could ruin your shears or damage your plant.

Types of Shears

Two common styles of hand shears are those with a scissor action and those with an anvil cut. With scissor-action shears, a thin, sharp blade slides closely past a thicker but also sharp blade. These may cost more but make cleaner, closer cuts. Anvil cut shears have a sharpened blade that cuts against a broad, flat blade.

Loppers, Pruners and Saws

For pruning trees, there are several tool types. A lopper is often used for pruning medium to large branches with diameters of 2-1/2″ or less, typically on fruit trees, vines and nut trees. A pole pruner takes dead wood out of trees of all types with branches of 1-1/4″ or less in diameter. If you want to prune medium to large low-hanging branches with diameters of 1-1/2″ or more, we recommend a pruning saw. A tree pruner is designed for any tree branches of 1-1/4″ or less in diameter that may eliminate the need for a ladder.

Equipment Care

Good equipment which is properly cared for does a better job and lasts longer. Be sure to store your tools in a dry room, keep it sharp and maintain its good operating condition by using it on a yearly basis.

When pruning diseased plants, disinfect all shears and saw blades after each cut to prevent spreading disease to healthy plants. Clean and disinfect equipment between each cut when pruning diseased plants with alcohol or bleach by mixing one part bleach to nine parts water. Then oil the pruning equipment well to avoid any rust formation.

When to Prune

The best time to prune trees and shrubs in the climate prevalent in the southern United States is January through early March when trees and shrubs are considered dormant. These months are also the best time to move established plants to new locations.

Trust Your Pruning to the Experts at ABC

Knowing exactly when and how to prune the plants in your yard can be a challenge, especially if you don’t have the right equipment. If you prefer to leave pruning to an expert, especially for your large trees like valuable oaks and crepe myrtles, look no further than ABC Home & Commercial Services. Our International Society of Arboriculture (ISA)-certified arborists will help maintain good tree health, provide proper pruning and trimming , feed trees with deep root fertilizers, perform storm damage care and assist with overgrown branches or root systems. With the help of our certified experts, your trees, shrubs, plants and home are in good hands!

Use the right tools for pruning

The right tools make pruning easier and help you do a good job. Keeping tools well-maintained and sharp will improve their performance. There are many tools for pruning, but the following will probably suffice for most applications:

  • A good pair of pruning shears is probably one of the most important tools. Cuts up to 3/4 inches in diameter may be made with them.
  • Lopping shears are similar to pruning shears, but their long handles provide greater leverage needed to cut branches up to 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
  • Hedge shears are meant only for pruning hedges, nothing else. They usually cut succulent or small stems best.
  • Hand saws are very important for cutting branches over 1 inch in diameter. Many types of hand saws are available. Special tri-cut or razor tooth pruning saws cut through larger branches – up to 4 inches in diameter – with ease.
  • Pole saws allow for extended reach with a long handle, but they must be used carefully as it is difficult to achieve clean cuts with them.
  • Small chain saws are available for use on larger branches. Operators must wear protective clothing and exercise caution when using them. Never use chain saws to reach above your shoulders, or when you are on a ladder.

How to prune trees and shrubs

General pruning guidelines

  • Remove diseased, broken or dead branches.
  • Remove any downward-growing branches.
  • If two limbs are crossed, entangled or otherwise competing, remove one of them completely at its base.
  • Remove any limbs along the trunk that are bigger in diameter than the trunk.
  • Remove suckers coming up from the roots or low on the trunk.
  • Remove vigorous vertical branches, called watersprouts.
  • Make pruning cuts close to the branch collar at the base of the limb.
    • For larger limbs, start the cut from the underside of the limb to avoid tearing the bark.
  • Remove large limbs first, starting with the top of the tree.
  • "Thinning" cuts remove entire branches at the branch collar and are usually the recommended type of cut.
  • "Heading" cuts remove only part of a branch and encourage vegetation growth below the cut and are not as common.

Pruning and training young trees and shrubs

Pruning begins at planting time

Pruning is really the best preventive maintenance for young plants. It is critical for young trees to be trained to encourage them to develop a strong structure.

Young trees pruned improperly or not pruned at all for several years may require heavy pruning to remove bigger branches to prevent trees from becoming deformed.

At planting, remove only diseased, dead or broken branches. Begin training a plant during the dormant season following planting.

  • Prune to shape young trees, but don't cut back the leader.
  • Remove crossing branches and branches that grow back towards the center of the tree.
  • As young trees grow, remove lower branches gradually to raise the crown, and remove branches that are too closely spaced on the trunk.
  • Remove multiple leaders on evergreens and other trees where a single leader is desirable.


Pruning young shrubs is not as critical as pruning young trees, but take care to use the same principles to encourage good branch structure. Container-grown shrubs require little pruning.

  • When planting deciduous shrubs, thin out branches for good spacing and prune out any broken, diseased or crossing or circling roots.
  • When planting deciduous shrubs for hedges, prune each plant to within 6 inches of the ground.

Pruning established trees

Leave the pruning of large trees to qualified tree care professionals who have the proper equipment. Consider the natural form of large trees whenever possible. Most hardwood trees have rounded crowns that lack a strong leader and may have many lateral branches.

The most common types of tree pruning are:

  • Crown thinning – selectively removing branches on young trees throughout the crown. This promotes better form and health by increasing light penetration and air movement. Strong emphasis is on removing weak branches. (Don't overdo it on mature trees.)
  • Crown raising – removing lower branches on developing or mature trees to allow more clearance above lawns, sidewalks, streets, etc.
  • Crown reduction – removing larger branches at the top of the tree to reduce its height. When done properly, crown reduction pruning is different from topping because branches are removed immediately above lateral branches, leaving no stubs. Crown reduction is the least desirable pruning practice. It should be done only when absolutely necessary.
  • Crown cleaning – the selective removal of dead, dying and diseased wood from the crown.

Proper branch pruning

Pruning large branches

To remove large branches, three or four cuts will be necessary to avoid tearing the bark.

  • Make the first cut on the underside of the branch about 18 inches from the trunk.
  • Undercut one-third to one-half way through the branch.
  • Make the second cut an inch further out on the branch cut until the branch breaks free.

Before making the final cut severing a branch from the main stem, identify the branch collar.

  • The branch collar grows from the stem tissue around the base of the branch.
  • Make pruning cuts so that only branch tissue (wood on the branch side of the collar) is removed.
  • Be careful to prune just beyond the branch collar, but DON'T leave a stub.
  • If the branch collar is left intact after pruning, the wound will seal more effectively and stem tissue probably will not decay.

The third cut may be made by cutting down through the branch, severing it. If, during removal, there is a possibility of tearing the bark on the branch underside, make an undercut first and then saw through the branch.

Wound dressing is not normally needed on pruning cuts. However, if wounds need to be covered to prevent insect transmission of certain diseases such as oak wilt, use latex rather than oil-based paint.

How to prune apple trees videos

How to prune apple trees: A 3-part video series

Video part 2

Video part 3

When to prune

The late dormant season (late winter to early spring) is best for most pruning.

Time pruning to avoid diseases and other problems

Pruning in late winter, just before spring growth starts, leaves fresh wounds exposed for only a short length of time before new growth begins the wound sealing process. Another advantage of dormant pruning is that it's easier to make pruning decisions without leaves obscuring plant branch structure.

Pruning at the proper time can avoid certain disease and physiological problems:

  • To avoid oak wilt disease DO NOT prune oaks from April to October.
    • If oaks are wounded or must be pruned during these months, apply wound dressing or latex paint to mask the odor of freshly cut wood so the beetles that spread oak wilt will not be attracted to the trees.
  • To avoid stem cankers, prune honeylocusts when they are still dormant in late winter.
    • If they must be pruned in summer, avoid rainy or humid weather conditions.
  • Prune apple trees, including flowering crabapples, mountain ash, hawthorns and shrub cotoneasters in late winter (February-early April).
    • Spring or summer pruning increases the chances for infection and spread of the bacterial disease fireblight.
    • Autumn or early winter pruning is more likely to result in drying and die-back at pruning sites.
  • Some trees have free-flowing sap that "bleeds" after late winter or early spring pruning. Though this bleeding causes little harm, it may still be a source of concern.
    • To prevent bleeding, prune the following trees after their leaves are fully expanded in late spring or early summer.
    • Never remove more than 1/4 of the live foliage. Examples include:
      • All maples, including box elder
      • Butternut and walnut
      • Birch and its relatives, ironwood and blue beech

Trees and shrubs to prune after blooming

Trees and shrubs that bloom early in the growing season on last year's growth should be pruned immediately after they finish blooming:

  • Apricot
  • Azalea
  • Chokeberry
  • Chokecherry
  • Clove currant
  • Flowering plum
  • Flowering cherry
  • Forsythia
  • Juneberry
  • Lilac
  • Magnolia
  • Early blooming spirea

Trees and shrubs to prune before new growth

Shrubs grown primarily for their foliage rather than showy flowers should be pruned in spring, before growth begins:

  • Alpine currant
  • Barberry
  • Buffaloberry
  • Burning bush
  • Dogwood
  • Honeysuckle

Shrubs that bloom on new growth may be pruned in spring before growth begins.

  • Plants with marginally hardy stems such as clematis and shrub roses should be pruned back to live wood.
  • Hardier shrubs such as late blooming spireas and smooth (snowball) hydrangeas should be pruned to the first pair of buds above the ground.

Pruning hedges

  • After the initial pruning at planting, hedges need to be pruned often.
  • Once the hedge reaches the desired height, prune new growth back whenever it grows another 6 to 8 inches.
  • Prune to within 2 inches of the last pruning.
  • Hedges may be pruned twice a year, in spring and again in mid-summer, to keep them dense and attractive.
  • Prune hedges so they're wider at the base than at the top, to allow all parts to receive sunlight and prevent legginess.

Renewal pruning for older or overgrown shrubs

  • Every year remove up to one-third of the oldest, thickest stems or trunks, taking them right down to the ground. This will encourage the growth of new stems from the roots.
  • Once there are no longer any thick, overgrown trunks left, switch to standard pruning as needed.

Rejuvenation pruning for older or overgrown shrubs

Deciduous shrubs that have multiple stems (cane-growth habit), and that have become very overgrown or neglected can be rejuvenated by cutting all canes back as close to the ground as possible in early spring.

That season's flowers may be sacrificed but the benefits from bringing the plants back to their normal size and shape outweigh this temporary collateral damage.

This pruning technique works best for shrubs such as overgrown spirea, forsythia, cane-growth viburnums, honeysuckle and any other multiple stemmed shrubs that are otherwise healthy. Within one growing season, these shrubs will look like new plantings, full and natural shaped.

With few exceptions, evergreens (conifers) require little pruning. Different types of evergreens should be pruned according to their varied growth habits.

  • Spruces, firs and douglas-firs don't grow continuously, but can be pruned any time because they have lateral (side) buds that will sprout if the terminal (tip) buds are removed.
    • It's probably best to prune them in late winter, before growth begins.
    • Some spring pruning, however, is not harmful.
  • Pines only put on a single flush of tip growth each spring and then stop growing.
    • Prune before these new needles become mature.
    • Pines do not have lateral buds, so removing terminal buds will take away new growing points for that branch. Eventually, this will leave dead stubs.
    • Pines seldom need pruning, but if you want to promote more dense growth, remove up to two-thirds of the length of newly expanded candles.
    • Don't prune further back than the current year's growth.
  • Arborvitae, junipers, yews, and hemlocks grow continuously throughout the growing season.
    • They can be pruned any time through the middle of summer.
    • Even though these plants will tolerate heavy shearing, their natural form is usually most desirable, so prune only to correct growth defects.

Watch the video: Dont Prune Fruit Trees Until You Watch This - Raintree