Marianne C. Ophardt: Topping trees never a good idea

April 18, 2013 

I have restrained myself for a while, but after a visit this past week to one of our local shopping centers, I can’t stop myself from saying something. Have you seen the awful way that trees are pruned in many local shopping centers and commercial landscapes?

It saddens and angers me when I see parking lot trees that have been mangled with a chainsaw. The mutilation involves chopping back the tops of these young trees. They look more like ugly hat racks rather than beautiful trees. All I can do is wonder, why this keeps happening?

Chopping back, or “topping” a tree, is never recommended, whether a tree is large or small. The stumps of the hacked off limbs will not close over, allowing wood decay fungi to infect the tree. In addition, this radical loss of branches weakens the tree by taking away it’s ability to make carbohydrates, the food it needs for growth. This makes the tree vulnerable to attack by insects and diseases. It drastically shortens a tree’s life. Why did the business even bother to plant the trees?

Businesses may have several different rationales for mangling their own trees. One reason is that they want customers to see their signs and building. This is a poor decision for three major reasons. First, while concern about blocking signs is valid, the problems could have been avoided before the trees were planted with good planning involving the proper selection and siting of the trees. Later, as trees grow, pruning can maintain their beauty and allow for good views of a business and its signs.

Secondly, when you top a tree, the regrowth will be twiggy and dense, making

it harder to see a sign or a business. Topping is considered high-maintenance pruning because once topped, a tree will need pruning again (and again) every few years. This weakens the tree and places it on a quicker path of decline.

Another reason that topping these trees is ill advised for businesses is the impact it can have on their bottom line. Research indicates that shoppers and patrons respond positively to landscapes with healthy and well-maintained trees. The quality of the landscape reflects on the perception of the quality of goods and services a customer will receive.

Surveys indicate that customers are willing to pay from 7 percent to 20 percent more for goods and services from a nicely landscaped business with healthy trees. Good businesses pay close attention to the appearance of the inside and outside of their buildings. They should be just as mindful of the impression that their landscapes and trees give to customers.

Finally, one bad reason that businesses have their trees topped or badly pruned is that they don’t know any better. They may ask their landscape maintenance company to cut back the trees. They need to be better informed. They should hire an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist to thin the trees or reduce the size of the crowns. If the arborist cannot prune the tree to a satisfactory size, then the business owner should consider removing the tree and planting the right tree in a more desirable location.

-- Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.

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