Most people think of appearances when it comes to pruning. But there’s an important safety factor involved, too. Pruning removes dead limbs and branches and that makes for safer trees. Dead limbs and branches have a nasty tendency to fall off, particularly during high winds. If luck is on your side, there’s no damage – property or bodily. If luck isn’t on your side… Well, let’s just say it’s worth the time to do the pruning.
Examine trees annually to determine whether pruning is needed. In addition to keeping your trees safe and looking good, proper pruning is good for your trees’ health, too. It can add years to the overall life of your trees. Getting rid of dead, diseased, or damaged branches and limbs helps reduce further damage, much like removing gangrenous tissue saves human limbs.
Preventative pruning, in the form of removing crowded, rubbing or misshapen branches or branches with narrow crotch angles cuts down on tree damage in the long run. But, be careful. Too much of a good thing when it comes to pruning brings a new set of problems. The practice called topping or heading back the tree trunk to reduce the tree height may destroy the tree form and create large wounds, entry pathways for disease and insects, basically like pruning on steroids, and just like the use of steroids, nothing about topping is good.
One of the myths about topping is that it’ll keep your trees from getting “too big”. Of course, proper tree selection in the first place negates that issue. Consider that one busted! Once you top a deciduous tree, you’ve kicked its growth rate into overdrive. The tree tries to re-grow its missing leaf area because it needs them to produce food. This growth spike won’t stop until the topped tree is approximately the same size it was pre-topping. The only exception to this rule happens when you’ve so injured the tree that it dies.
All of that work amounts to nothing AND creates a potential hazard! Excessive topping sometimes creates internal columns of rotten wood due to exposure to the organisms that cause rot. If not rot, then starvation hits the tree since topping removes all the leaves. A starved tree eventually dies and a dead tree is a hazard. The re-growth – new limbs coming from shoots and suckers – is often quite weak and susceptible to breakage.
Topping trees also creates a potential economic hazard. Trees have economic value and topping can reduce that value by hundreds of dollars. That ultimately reduces your property value. You’re also opening yourself to legal liability for any damage your dead or dying topped trees cause. Even if you’ve been lucky and they haven’t caused damages, many cities fine homeowners for topping trees due to the public safety factor.
Lastly, it’s just ugly. Trees are beautiful life forms, full of history. Topping wipes out growth of almost (or over) a century in one day and all that beauty is lost forever. Be wise, be safe, and don’t top your trees. When is doubt, consult with a certified arborist for a tree health or tree risk assessment, an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.