Topping? Lion-tailing?  What do these terms mean? 

Of the damage that can be done by improper pruning, topping and lion-tailing are certainly two of the worst things that can be done to tree.

Why you shouldn’t top your trees

Topping involves removing the tops of the limbs and leaving huge, ‘stubbed off’ limbs and nothing else. A fellow arborist I worked with over 15 years ago likened it to a person having their arms and legs cut off.  More often than not, it kills a tree outright.  If the tree does survive, it has to tap into all of its energy reserves to re-grow multiple limbs from each cut. Unfortunately, as these new long skinny limbs re-grow around the outside of each large wound, the center of the wound then begins to rot slowly over time.  While the weakly attached re-growth often eventually breaks at the area of attachment, the actual limb itself rots from the center causing even weaker and more dangerous limbs over time.

Topping typically kills slow growing trees, such as oaks, right away. Unfortunately, these are the trees that are the best at compartmentalizing rot and have the strongest wood.   Also, topping usually kills excurrent trees such as pines or bald cypress (that have a pyramidal shape and one dominant, central leader), outright.  Survivability after topping is much higher in faster growing, softer wooded trees such as maples or ash trees.  Unfortunately, these are the very trees that rot the fastest because they are poor at compartmentalizing rot.  These softer wooded trees quickly become hazardous after topping.

Heading is like topping, but is done to an individual branch.  Heading back a limb has the same effect as topping.  If the limb gets enough sunlight, it re-sprouts many new branches from the cut.  These branches are also weakly attached, and unsightly.  Branches that are pruned properly are much less likely to re-sprout.  If limbs that are in full sun are headed back into the canopy and are shaded, they typically die.

Why lion-tailing should never be done

Lion-tailing, or ‘poodle-tailing’ is done by stripping branches of all their lateral limbs, except for the branches at the end of the limb. This causes the limbs to look like a lion’s tail, or a Dr. Seuss truffula tree, for example.  This is extremely bad for the tree, and causes the limbs to eventually break off due to the excessive weight at the very end of the branch. This also has a weakening effect over time.  Limbs have many living ‘lateral’ limbs along their length.  These lateral limbs have the effect of strengthening the limb over time as they expand, but also have the effect of increasing the limb diameter at that point along the limb, increasing taper by increasing the limbs diameter at that point along the branch.   Limbs with little to no taper are always very weak, and much more prone to failure.  Add to that the effect of weighting the branches only at the ends, and we have a seriously unsafe situation that gets much worse over time.

Certain trees, such as maples, are more prone to re-sprouting.  Oaks, for example, often do not re-sprout.  Certain trees have more inner leaves than others.  Oaks, for example have much less interior leaf growth than maples, ash or elms.   This contributes to the trees ability to re-grow leaves in the center after limb loss.  This is of course taken into consideration when pruning each species.

The costs of improper pruning

When it comes to pruning, you can pay a great deal of money to have your trees destroyed.  I have seen it happen before many times.  Years ago my neighbor paid $2400.00 to have his four ash trees lion-tailed.  For five years after he had it done, limbs were continuously breaking and hanging down in the canopy, causing hazardous situations continually.  Over-thinning or topping trees leave you with an additional expense to have them removed when they die.  Then you have the expense of re-planting as well.

I still see these types of poor pruning today.  Although it is not as prevalent as it was years ago, it does still happen.  Bad pruning cuts are a daily occurrence with poorly trained pruning crews. A ‘flush cut’ that cuts off the branch collar cannot be corrected, and may never heal, leading to rot and even tree failure in the future.  Stub cuts, although they can be corrected, are unsightly and can also lead to decay and infection when left.

It is better to get a seasoned certified arborist out to your property to have it done properly the first time Trees can add up to 20 percent to your property value.  There is simply no substitute to hiring the right person when it comes to your valuable trees.  Don’t cut corners.  Often you will even pay the same for bad pruning work, as you would for a quality job.  Call us for a free estimate!

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