This is a poor butchered willow from my neighborhood. It will never look normal again. It’s not near a house. I have no idea what prompted the owners to do this.

Years ago, while living in Parker Arizona, I noticed that there were a lot of trees pruned to look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. As a tree lover, it just seemed wrong on a gut level, and I didn’t understand why anyone would do that to a tree.

Our yard there had a large mulberry tree out front that had been topped in the recent past. We got a knock on the door asking if we wanted our “tree cleaned up” to which I responded “absolutely not”. We let that tree do its thing, even though the shape never looked right. Southern Arizona is an unforgiving climate, with daytime temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for 5 months out of the year. The last thing this tree needed was to have all of its branches removed. The last thing we wanted was a reduction in shade.

Once we took the 12 week (now 17 week!) Arizona Master Gardener program in 2020, we better understood the ins and outs of why topping trees is such a bad idea. I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on this for a very long time. The recent butchering of some mature sycamores in front of a winery in our town prompted me to finally put this piece together.

This is The Walls Winery, on the corner of Pine and 13th Street. These are fairly mature sycamores. You can see in the picture on the left their original shape and height (note sycamores are naturally actually quite bushy, so the lower branches have been removed over time, which is pretty common for these trees). What possessed the owners to take this drastic measure is beyond me. No doubt it cost several thousand dollars to do this work. (picture on the left courtesy of Beckner Tree Service, who was as appalled as I was by this butchery and posted it to their Facebook page). The first picture was taken mid April. I took the second one yesterday. You can see how little regrowth has occurred.

I’m not sure what goes on in people’s heads when they make a decision to top a tree, but I can only assume it is one of two things. 1) that the tree is too tall and threatening infrastructure should it break or fall or 2) they think that somehow the more dense growth after topping will provide better shade or 3) they think by topping the tree will be less “messy”.

None of that is true. Here is the reality.

Trees feed themselves with sunlight through photosynthesis. You might remember the formula 6CO2 + 6H2O + sunlight → C6H12O6 + 6O2 from some long ago biology class. Translated into English, this reads 6 molecules of carbon dioxide (hello greenhouse gas) plus 6 molecules of water plus the energy of sunlight is transformed by the cellular machinery inside the leaves (think tiny natural solar panels) to produce one molecule of sugar (food for all of the tree’s functions including repair and growth) and 6 molecules of oxygen (take a deep breath and thank a tree).

So first and foremost, when you take off all of the branches and leaves of a tree, you have eliminated its ability to feed itself. It has to draw on all of its stored reserves in order to try and regrow what was removed. It’s kind of like putting a person on a juice fast diet and then expecting them to climb to the top of a mountain each day. The topped tree is now literally starving.

Some trees will go into shock with this kind of pruning and never recover, dying on the spot. Others will have their trunk, normally not exposed to the intense heat of the sun for the entire day, actually sunburn and split open.

This large frequently topped tree, in College Place, never recovered. It will now be expensive to remove, and this house lost shade on its south side, where it was most critical.

This kind of pruning also opens up hundreds if not thousands of wounds all over the tree, that are then openings for insects, bacteria, fungus and other diseases to enter. Continuing our analogy, we’ve now peppered the person who is juice fasting with a shotgun blast and then asked them to climb to the top of the mountain. Disease and rot soon follow.

Most importantly, the new branches, when they do regrow, are all anchored on the outer rind of cambium. Not anchored deep into the heartwood like the old limbs. In a desperate attempt to feed itself, new growth is dense and concentrated, but with whip thin branches that have little strength. It looks wildly unnatural. These trees often remind me of children’s drawings of a tree – basically a lollypop on a stick. Branches will often quickly shoot up to their original height, completely negating the attempt to reduce the tree height. The amount of shade created by the tree is reduced. The amount of airflow through the new branches is low, exacerbating disease issues.

Then along comes a windstorm, or a snowstorm, or an ice storm. And this new growth, thin and not well anchored and often suffering from disease and rot in the trunk its attached to, breaks, causing as much or more damage than if the tree had been left alone.

You CAN safely prune back the height of a tree if you know what you are doing, or hire a trained LICENSED arborist to do that work for you. It’s not inexpensive. Nice overview of how to prune correctly here. Rough rule of thumb is to remove no more than 25% of the crown on older trees at any one time.

Fun biology tree fact. Where a branch is located on a tree will always be the height of that branch. Branches to not move UP as the tree grows. So if its too low/in your way, trim it when its small to reduce the risk of disease introduction.

For the record, I’m not a huge fan of pollarding, which is when a young tree is pruned to the desired shape and new growth is removed annually. I’d much rather choose the right sized tree for the right location, and let its natural shape emerge over time then have to cut off all new growth yearly. That said, I don’t like shaped hedges either. What can I say. I’m a wild child.

They say the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. But I would add that the best time to take a tree out that is the wrong size/shape/height for the space is NOW. Just bite the bullet and take out the tree and replace it with something more appropriate, instead of spending sometimes thousands of dollars topping trees that will only become an additional liability later, and postponing the inevitable.

When we moved onto our current property, we quickly made the decision to take down several trees that were either 1) within a foot of the foundation (sigh – why do people do that?) 2) that had suffered broken tops or catastrophic pruning such that the shape of the tree was never going to look right no matter what interventions we performed moving forward and 3) that were simply WAY too big for where they had been planted (I’m looking at you blue spruce). All of these trees had probably been in the ground 10 to 20 years. I’m sure they looked cute and landscape appropriate when they were first put in, with little thought to what their final size would be.

We immediately removed this tree when we moved onto our current property. Distance from trunk to foundation? About 8 inches. Seriously! What were they thinking? The gargoyle has sat here in recrimination ever since.

Oh, and for heaven’s sake, look UP before you plant a tree. Some of the worst cases of tree pruning are by power company crews, who have no stake in how your tree looks or how healthy it is, and little training in proper tree pruning (they are often just temporary summer crews) and so butcher the symmetry of a tree to remove branches that are threatening power lines. Most of those trees should have never have been planted in those locations to begin with.

Here are a couple of examples of large trees under power lines, their shape destroyed by pruning. Wouldn’t a smaller tree be a better choice here than this Frankenstein mess?

So, in short, plant the right tree for the right location to begin with, ALWAYS take into consideration its final size, bite the bullet and remove inappropriate trees sooner rather than later, and hire licensed arborists when you need help. They are worth every penny.

© 2021, where we’re miles away from celebrating the sad sad trees above, and have a sycamore we grew from seed on the corner of our property, which we are carefully watching and pruning it so that it doesn’t become someone else’s problem 20 years from now. Sign up for a monthly newsletter to your email inbox HERE.