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tree topping Tree Topping & Pruning Best Practices

Topping a tree and pruning are common questions from clients and friends. A tree is beautiful, artistic and complex. How can you make cuts without scarring?

Puget Sound area tree topping became popular in the 60’s and 70’s as a means to keep trees safer and preserve views. The tree industry soon discovered that the topped trees grew six new tops to replace the top removed. This made the trees top heavy and more dangerous. It created job security for the tree toppers but is now considered a practice for the horticulturally uneducated.

Now that you know a bit of tree topping history, here are some exceptions and rules based on my 28 years of horticultural observations:

  • If the top of your tree is dead, you may cut it off.
  • In Europe, pollarding is started when their street trees are young, hence the trees “get used to it.” Pollarding is a pruning technique that keeps trees and shrubs smaller than they would naturally grow. This article is informative: Read about pollarding.
  • In my opinion, cone shaped trees such as Dwarf Alberta Spruce or Excelsia cedars look just plain wrong when you chop the top off, especially if they are mature trees.
  • “Plucking” at the top and sides of conifers such as Hinoki cypress, Shore pine, Canadian hemlock, weeping trees, and various dwarf plants will not damage them if started early. Plucking is my term meaning you start thinning (hand pruning) a tree as it matures. Don’t wait too long to start this process. Don’t wait too long to start this process. Keep hand pruners at your side when out in the garden. If you learn and practice good pruning, the process will be more like removing an occasional splinter vs. major surgery.

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Start Before You Need To Start

sawing off a tree branch

Most people wait until they CAN’T get through a gate or around the side of their house to think about pruning. We say to ourselves, “This thing is out of hand; I need to get it under control.” Out comes the chain saw! Hence, the poor ornamental tree looks like something out of a nightmare. Here are a few quick tips to help you prune and trim successfully. Pruning actually stimulutates plant hormones to produce new growth, resulting in “bad hair days” for the tree.

  • A good pruning book or experienced gardener are your best tools. This website has some good guidelines: TreeHelp.com.
  • Take a pruning class if you have a chance. Bellevue Botanical Garden offers some great classes. Go here to learn more.
  • Start early. Pruning before a plant “needs” to be pruned means that it might never really look pruned.
  • Sanitize your pruners after each use with alcohol to avoid spreading plant diseases.
  • Plant the right plant in the right place. This is ingrained into the Reynolds Landscape philosophy.

Plants Aren’t Countertops Or Furniture

Unlike other aspects of home improvement, horticulture is unique. Your granite counter tops don’t need mowing. Your sofa does not change shape or size or sprout a branch that forces you to walk around it. There are an infinite number of variables including micro-climates, shade vs. sun, watering habits.

In the horticulture business we have what we call “maximum size” and “ultimate size.” The maximum size is what the book says a tree will reach when mature. Your plants, however, may not do what the book says. The ultimate size reflects what your plant actually does in its location on your property. If it’s happy it may outgrow maximum size. If unhappy, it may be stunted or odd shaped as it searches for happiness.

Practice “Right Plant – Right Place” Horticulture

Dry sites deserve drought resistant plants. Wet areas need water tolerant ornamentals. Shade,sun and soil content are huge considerations. Study before you make a purchase and be patient. A dwarf conifer will grow into its place over time and get better with age. A Leyland cypress will give you instant privacy inexpensively. Left to its own, however, it will become a behemoth and need drastic pruning or removal. Selecting the right plant for the right place will limit future topping and pruning issues.

Don’t Be A Pruning Perfectionist

woman pruning shrub

Books, classes, nurseries, green horticulturists, “tree hackers,” master gardeners, your neighbors, and nearly everyone with whom you speak will all have an opinion as to the optimal time to prune. The bottom line is that if you wait until an imagined perfect time the job might never get done. You may wake up one day and need that chainsaw after all.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. It’s part of education. Just do it with a light touch. Here’s one of my real life experiences. December of 2008 temperatures at my home got down to four degrees. A few weeks prior I had some time, so I hacked back my lavender and some of my grasses. Typically, I would have waited until late winter or early spring to do this. The hard freeze caused these plants to freeze to death. Had I left some “margin” on the plants, this may not have happened. The good thing is I learned on a $20 plant and not one worth $120.

Keep in mind, plant care is a lifelong process. Thoughtful experimentation and the lessons learned may help you avoid a future disaster. The variables are too many for me to write about, and this author is respected on the subject: Pruning by Christopher Brickell.

I hope you find this information helpful. If you have a specific question, please contact me here. I will do my best to answer or point you in the right direction.

Happy gardening,

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Jim Reynolds
Owner & Founder

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