Monday, January 14, 2008

Is there a "Butcher" in the Garden?

Who doesn't love trees? Well okay, I know there are SOME people who truly do not like trees (Mr. Fix-it would be one who would be happy to do without trees), but even amongst those people who do not like trees, I think they can all agree trees serve a vital purpose in our world.

Trees shade our homes and play areas, reduce our cooling bills, use a byproduct of our respiration (carbon dioxide) to make oxygen (absolutely vital to our life), add value to homes by increasing curb appeal, and generally make life so much better just by being around.

Trees don't ask for much in return for all they give us. Some small and newly planted trees may require extra attention in the form of water and some light pruning for shaping, but once mature a tree requires only minimal care from the gardener. Basically, don't compact the tree roots, don't run into the tree with lawnmowers and weedwhackers (probably the number one cause of a tree's demise), and prune the tree properly when required. Proper pruning DOES NOT include topping.

Most people who have trees topped have only good intentions, but unknowingly their good intentions are causing more harm and damage to the tree than the worst lawnmower or weedwhacker injury ever could.

Sometimes, trees are topped to remove the threat of heavy limbs growing into electrical wires. Topping a tree to remove the threat of a branch falling into wires is probably the number one reason trees are topped in this area. Another reason homeowners have their trees topped is they think it will take away the threat of the tree falling on their home or other structures. There are better ways of dealing with problem trees and tree limbs growing into wires.

I equate topping a tree to cutting out half of a person's digestive system. When a tree is topped, main support branches are arbitrarily cut to reduce the canopy of the tree and to make the tree appear to be of a uniform size, nice and neat. Some also think the reduced weight of the chopped up branches reduces risks of the tree toppling and harming property. This is not true.

When a tree's canopy is cut severely as it is when the tree is topped, it is like cutting out half of our digestive system. The tree has lost half of it's food making machine when it is topped. Therefore, food production is slowed down and not processed effectively, the same result which would happen to humans if half of our digestive system were to be cut out. We surely would not be able to digest our food effectively, though we could still eat because we have a mouth, part of a stomach, small and large intestines and all of the other required organs for food digestion, we just don't have a complete system. Neither does a tree when its canopy is cut off. No doctor in his or her right mind would cut half of a person's digestive system out without a very good medical reason; no tree pruner in his or her right mind would top trees. If a tree pruner does top trees in the name of pruning, he or she is actually butchering the tree, hence, butcher in the garden. I don't know about you, but I think butchers belong in a meat shop.

The tree tries to compensate for the loss of its leaves by growing even more leaves and branches. Just look at the pictures of trees trying to compensate for the loss of their canopy. The new branches, while large, are not supported well at the wound site caused by a prior topping. The trees are doomed. In the short term the tree looks good because now it has even more leaves. The problem is the leaves are now attached to weak branches, which have sprouted from the wounded areas caused by topping. The tree now has its food making capacity back, but its circulatory system; which effectively processes the energy taken in by the leaves; is compromised due to the severe wounding the tree received when its main branches were cut off. The long term prognosis for the tree is not good. A tree will never be able to grow back its branches enough to effectively regain the perfect system it had prior to being topped. The tree will become weaker and weaker, those weak suckers holding all those new leaves will be shaken loose in strong winds, the tree will fight off infection at the wound site and eventually the tree is going to be overwhelmed by its injuries; it will die. When the tree dies, we people lose a valuable asset that once shaded our homes, brought beauty to our lives, reduced our energy bills, and used our tremendous amount of carbon dioxide to make life giving oxygen.

What a tradgedy. I know I may sound dramatic, but when you think about trees and how long it takes them to grow to mature specimans and how much beauty and joy they bring to everyday life, losing even one tree is a tradgedy. Don't top. There are alternative ways of dealing with what may be considered a problem tree. Hiring a certified arborist is the best way for the homeowner, society, and the tree. An arborist can selectively prune offending branches in a logical way that will NOT harm the tree. Lateral pruning is the logical way.

Lateral pruning is when tree branches are pruned back to a main branch without taking off the branch collar. When a tree's branches are selectively pruned laterally, the tree will not go into shock due to the loss of its canopy and huge wounds. What a tree will do in response to lateral pruning is to compartmentalize the wound by growing bark over the open area. The tree will not grow poorly attached suckers and will still be able to produce food adequately for continued health. Topping will ALWAYS harm a tree and there are alternatives to topping so please don't top your trees or allow others to top your trees.

The first three pictures are of trees around town which have been topped. They don't provide a pretty picture but provide a realistic picture of what trees look like after topping. The first picture shows a tree in its death throes due to topping. Topping has severely injured it and rot has set in as the tree was not able to compartmentalize the pruning wounds since the wounds were not made in accordance with acceptable practices. This tree will have to be removed before it falls on one of the nearby houses. These pictures are in sharp contrast to a nicely formed and healthy tree. The next two pictures show the ugliness caused by recent butchering-um-excuse me-topping.

The fourth picture shows a close up of a rotted branch. This branch was a main branch and cutting it severely injured the tree. If you look closely at the foreground of the picture, you can see where the "butcher" chopped some smaller branches as well.

The next two pictures show a close up of the suckers the topped tree has already grown in. These suckers cause way more leaves and branches to grow than what was there prior to the topping. They are not as securely attached and as they grow larger, they will get so heavy that any wind or storm will cause them to break away from the tree. I wanted to be sure the homeowner reading this could clearly see the damage I am talking about when I talk about weakly attached suckers growing at the wounded points on the trees.

The picture of a pruning wound on a large tree is a picture of an oak tree growing in my yard. During the winter I spend alot of time (probably too much) pruning my mature trees. I love my trees but a few are too close to the house. Rather than topping my trees or taking them out completely, I am laterally pruning the few offending limbs. I do NOT recommend homeowners prune their own trees, but I have experience with pruning and have been doing it for many years. The cut you see here healing was made to the old oak about three years ago in order to limb up the tree. The tree is satisfactorily closing off the wound, and has not sent out suckers to compensate for the loss of one limb. I never prune all of the limbs in one year, instead I prefer to prune just a few as necessary each year so that I don't take off too much of the canopy. Even though I don't "top" my trees, trees can go into shock if they are pruned too severely all at once. This applies to shrubs as well and may be more understandable when you picture a shrub pruned down to nothing (as in Crepe Murder-a post will come about that). A general rule of thumb is don't prune more than one third of the canopy in one year.

The last picture is of an oak growing in my yard. You can see how the form is nicely rounded and COMPLETE. Isn't it a world of difference from the first pictures of topped trees? Enough on pruning and topping and digestive systems for now. I know this is a long post but I think it is important for everyone to understand the consequences of tree topping. Oftentimes when a tree dies the homeowner has no clue as to why it died. This is because a tree takes a long time to die and the cause and effect are hard to trace once the long period of time has passed. But die they will if you top your trees or allow them to be topped.

in the garden....not topping but pruning.


  1. Today, as usual I am in awe of how much you know and are able to convey it in words for others. However in todays post I am wondering why when you began the post with uses for our beloved trees you did not mention a few of the things we could not live without in our lives that come from trees. Just to mention a couple...paper procucts and building materials.

  2. I loved this post --trees are beautiful and it is a shame to drive around town and see them cut off --very informative post. Oddly enough, I planted 4 trees this weekend, lol. I hope they grow:)

  3. Georgia Power is always on the ball when it comes to cutting, pruning, etc. They are really good about keeping trees out of the way of power lines around here but sad to see some of the once beautiful trees now all naked with doom ahead. I cannot help but wonder why they cut a tree in half at times! I know the homeowner of that beautiful old magnolia tree does not want it cut so I assume they make an agreement with GA power to only cut what is under the power line, thus leaving a half tree standing and of course, leaning towards the road with half its balance… I reckon it then becomes the Dept of Roads problem when it falls… I hate to say it but I would rather see a tree cut completely down rather then butchered to die a slow death...

  4. Me too Skeeter....only I go one step father....cut it down and plant a better one that is suited for that spot.

  5. I have to agree with Skeeter that I too would rather see a tree cut completely down rather than butchered. The electric company came thru the country several years ago trimming and topping trees and I refused to give them permission to trim a beautiful maple in our yard. They said they would be back in 4 to 5 years and it would definitely have to be trimmed. They were in the area this past summer. We were gone on a vacation for a month. Guess what, they butchered it for us!!

  6. Good to see you on here nina as it has been a while. Hope your Dad is okay.

  7. Hi everyone,
    Good to hear your comments about this terrible practice of topping. I will try to continue a pruning theme this week, with some points of contact for help when you might have trouble with toppers. I really think it is an ignorance thing or an assurance the toppers will remain in business because when the tree is toppped, it actually requires MORE pruning than if it had been pruned correctly.

    Mom, I did forget to mention all of the things we get from trees. It is funny too because the Jimster and I were just speaking of it this weekend. It makes you think about all the things we get from trees and what would we do without them?

    Anonymous, Good job for planting the trees. Every little bit helps and I know it will add to your property. They will surely grow.

    Skeeter and Nina,
    I am with you. If a tree is in the wrong place, it should be taken out. We are very fortunate here in the county. The last time the trimmers came through, they actually offered to take out some offending trees. The guy in charge said it was cheaper to take them out than keep pruning.

    I told the 'adjacent property owner', and she said, "I want my trees!" They are under the power line and are oaks. What an awful sight when the trimmers were done and I think she lost out on a great deal. I don't know if anyone has had trees taken out, but it can be pricey and if the trimmers offer to do it for free-you need to jump on it!

    Trimmers are just doing a job. I understand homeowners want their trees, but you need to be aware of how trees affect external infrastructure and how they can affect your home. If you plant a tree, make sure it is in the right spot. If nature plants a tree for you, you first must identify what type of tree and then evaluate what its long term growth will do to the surrounding wires. If you determine a squirrel planted an oak under the power lines, cut it out when it is small. Doing these two things-planting the right tree and identifying problem trees-will eliminate or at least drastically reduce the need for "butchers".

    Nina, I am so sorry for your loss on the tree. If rot has not set in, you may be able to fix the tree by laterally pruning out the butchered branches. There are some good trimmers out there and I can direct you to some. It is pricey but worth it when you consider the alternative; the demise of the tree. The electric company really should compensate homeowners when they chop trees like this. It is awful.

    I had the same thing happen to my trees prior to purchasing this house in 2001. I called CEMC and was not happy. Before they came again I took out the offending trees. Now the trimmers say they may have to trim the few remaining. We'll see about that and I hope like anything I am here when they try because the trees I left are outside of the right of way! The CEMC point of contact told me they have 20 feet of right of way clearance from the wires. Anything outside of that right of way should NOT be touched but that is not always the case. My trees are further away than the right of way so they should not EVER need to be touched. This is where I will stand firm.

    I plan to post some points of contacts and more information about tree trimming in upcoming posts.

    You are very smart. Cutting the tree down and planting the right one there is the only way to go rather than see the tree butchered.