The Season for Arboricide

A tree properly topped in autumn...

A tree properly topped in autumn…

Right around this time of year, landscaping and yard service companies start cruising my neighborhood.  They come in search of easy prey: nice middle-class homeowners eager to keep a tidy yard, and concerned about the danger large trees supposedly pose to telephone and electrical wires, the roof, or the neighbor’s five-figure fully winterized RV.  They’ll  leave flyers in your mailbox or dangling on the doorknob.  In my case,  they come on up to the stoop and  ring the doorbell, having greedily eyeballed the monstrous pin-oak that towers over my house, the phone lines, and the neighbors’ houses on two sides.

“If we top your tree before leaf-fall,” encouraged one sly salesman, smiling his honey-sweet money-shredder smile: “you won’t have any raking to do.  We’re insured.”

Get thee behind me Satan, indeed.

Brace yourselves: I’m about to shoot from the hip.  Tree topping is arboricide.

A tree’s natural shape is determined by its genetic code, not by chain-saw.  Some trees are columnar in shape, some are pyramidal, or have what is called “the irregular form.”  Still others are vase-like, or oval.  Some of the most magnificent come with beautifully rounded canopies.  They also come in spreading, and weeping forms.

Topped trees like this one are easily wind-thrown during even moderate storm conditions.

Topped trees like this one are easily wind-thrown during even moderate storm conditions.

If you top a spreading Chinese Elm tree so that it is the shape and size of a paper birch (out of fear that in a wind-storm, it will drop branches on your home) you will have killed it deader than a door-nail, though the death won’t be obvious to you right away.  When the poor thing finally breaks, or tips up out of the ground to show off a shockingly small root-ball, you’ll think the Storm of ’04 did it in, but the truth is that you paid a tree-service company to deliver the Terminal Cut back in ’98.

Topping starves a tree’s root system.  Roots atrophy when the tree canopy is no longer able to photosynthesize sufficient sugars to feed them.  While some varieties of trees, in a limited number of environmental conditions, are somewhat better able to re-establish a sustainable root-growth-to-top growth ratio, topped trees never recover sufficient root mass to anchor themselves to the earth strongly enough to bear the weight of their height and their major limbs in high wind conditions.  If you’ve ever seen a “wind thrown tree” – one whose root system has been torn out of the ground as the tree tipped over, you are looking at a tree that, for any number of reasons, has lost root mass through cycles of starvation.

Master Gardeners are often called on to try to explain this to people who have their trees routinely topped as part of yearly yard maintenance.  “But my tree has been fine!” they exclaim (although they have called to ask what to do about sap suckers drilling so many holes in the tree that entire branches are cracking under the weight of the leaves).  “It bounces right back every spring with lots of new growth!”

Witch-crazing: this tree has exhausted itself trying to re-establish enough canopy to feed its massive root system.  It will fail and die.

Witch-crazing: this tree is exhausting itself trying to re-establish enough canopy to feed its massive root system. It will fail and die.

That explosion of new growth?  It isn’t a sign that the tree has bounced back.  It is a sign that the tree has suffered a massive systemic shock.  What looks like a “bounce-back” is actually called “witch-crazing,” a colloquial term that describes the neurotic flush of growth seen in trees and herbaceous perennials experiencing massive immuno-systemic compromise.  An ash trees witch-crazes in response to an emerald ash borer infestation (if it has time).  All trees witch craze in response to losing one-third or more body mass to a well-meaning chain saw.

Trees are long-lived creatures with slow life cycles.  A tree that lives 150+ years can easily take 10 years to die.  Uninformed humans – including tree service companies – don’t recognize the small signs that are a quiet giant’s death throes: first, the explosion of brittle, pest-susceptible branches, then sun scalded leaves or bark, failure to flower, the wholesale dropping of immature fruits, discolored branch stumps slippery with fungal infection,  insect-riddled wood, cracked and fallen branches, sheared bark, and the rest.

Everything is “just fine” until a winter ice storm or an early summer funnel cloud breaks the tree in half and tosses its corpse through the living room window, may the good Lord protect us all from such harm.  Amen.

“Wow, that was a powerful storm!”  Maybe.

“Wow, that was your mortally wounded tree.”  Definitely.

Ice storms are hell on trees too.  Trees with narrow crotch angles, like those that result from topping, are especially susceptible to ice damage.

Ice storms are hell on trees too. Trees with narrow crotch angles, like those that result from topping, are especially susceptible to ice damage.

Don’t get me wrong: you don’t want oak tree branches lying on your roof, encouraging moisture to accumulate,  rotting out your beams.  You might have purchased a house that some cheap-skate builder “landscaped” with an inexpensive, fast growing  tree, like a brittle Silver Maple, famous for littering the yard with sticks under no more stress than a pair of quarreling squirrels.  Or it may be you were lucky enough to inherit a Little House in the Big Woods surrounded by majestic Shagbark Hickories…. among whose ancient limbs are threaded power and phone lines.  There are dozens of reasons why trees need the intervention of a trained professional with a chain saw.  But trained professionals know how much wood to take at a time; they know how to make cuts that the tree is able to heal; they know what times of year are best suited to trimming different species of tree; they know how to preserve each tree’s natural form.  They are also able to identify and treat pests and diseases.

You don’t need a lawn-care service whose main qualifications are  a group of workers  brave enough to haul chain-saws  75 feet into a canopy.  You need to hire an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist: a tree doctor.  You can find ISA certified tree doctors in your area by visiting the organization’s web-site at

A certified arborist is significantly more expensive than a do-it-yourself tree service company.  My experience has been that arborists are aware that their prices are steep, and are willing to work with you to develop a payment plan to make tree care more affordable.  In addition, they carry insurance not only for accidental damage to your property, but also to cover accident and injury to themselves and their crews.  ALWAYS ask to see proof of insurance coverage from professionals you are considering hiring to work on your trees.  Do not be surprised when you find that inexpensive yard care providers carry insurance against accidental damage to your property but not for accident or injury to themselves or their crews. You had better have good home-owner’s insurance if one of them falls out of your tree or chain-saws their foot while standing on your property.

Shade trees add value and beauty to your property.  They help to prevent flooding; they help to prevent erosion.  They lower your heating and cooling bills twelve months out of the year.  They provide home, cover, and food to wildlife.  It takes a long time to grow a good, hardwood shade tree.  Take very good care of them if you are lucky enough to have them.

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17 thoughts on “The Season for Arboricide

  1. Janet Montgomery says:

    Around here, it’s a tradition – my pappy, grandpappy, etc., always did it this way. Somebody did some research that seemed to indicate the custom came from Europe’s pollarded or coppiced trees. Whether or not it’s true, no one does it for those reasons anymore. It’s as you said – nice and tidy – and killing the tree!

  2. Ginger Shelby says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for speakin’ da truth!

  3. Margaret Katranides says:

    I see a tree whose branches have been amputated part way up, and I’m tempted to ask the chainsaw wielder how they would like it if someone did that to them. It’s so painful to think of. Trees are organisms, just like us. We owe them respect, and the best healthcare we can afford. Which often is to leave them alone.
    Another thing that irks me is how many people make hills of mulch around the base of their tree–nice homes for insects and fungi. They seem to think it’s a part of proper landscaping.

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      I think even a child can tell intuitively that something is “wrong” with topping trees. And you’re right — mulch volcanoes mounded up the trunk of a tree is a beginning gardener error made by cities in parks all the time. They seem to have the resources to replace dead trees, but not to mulch in a way that is actually helpful rather than harmful. Mulch should look like a donut, not a volcano.

  4. It’s always been interesting to me how many people blindly act without ever considering WHY their doing what their doing. When you ask them to justify their actions, they just get mad. I have a neighbor who butchers his crape myrtle ever year. It’s so idiotic. I thought about telling him to stop, but I think it’s beyond repair. Great post with excellent info.

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      I have had to teach myself to “leave well-enough alone” until someone asks my advice. I don’t understand chopping at a crape myrtle. It isn’t as if it’s a tree with an untidy habit…

  5. I have never seen trees just lopped off like that to prevent leaves etc…we just let them grow. Of course we have taken down most of our ashes as the EAB is close. Sad really as it will take another lifetime to grow another canopy.

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      You’re lucky if you never see trees “cared for” in this way. It’s standard practice in many places. And homeowners just don’t know any better…

  6. Laurrie says:

    I am always mystified at how entrenched the practices are of slowly killing trees around here by topping them and by mounding up mulch around trunks to prevent transporting nutrients up the trunk. No matter how much good information is out there, no matter how many times yard service guys are instructed, they persist in both of these highly destructive practices.

    I think it is because the machine guys who pass themselves off as landscapers (I got a truck! I got a leaf blower and a chainsaw!) do not see trees as living things. They see them as structures that need to be shaped at the top and reinforced at the bottom in order to stand upright. No clue about the root system or the forces going on inside.

    You have hit on a really frustrating issue for me in this very well written and impassioned post.

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      I think it boils down to lucre. These landscaping guys have nothing to lose and everything to gain by continuing the practice. There is a lot of money in slowly killing trees… processing dead wood… and finally hauling away the remains after the tree finally falls. And after the landscaping company grinds out the stump, they can sell you another “fast-growing shade tree.”


  7. U said it, Sistuh!!! Please also do one about the environmental waste associated with leaf removal. (When you get a chance… 😉 )

  8. Polly Sighs says:

    I did not know this! Thanks for educating me with this.

  9. Robbie says:

    OMG…this happened to our neighbors behind us. They topped all their trees when we had a storm go through here about 8 yrs ago. Those trees died, but the poor old women and her son behind us can’t afford anyone to take them out, so we all have to pray that nothing happens. We have tried talking to her, but they both won’t listen.The other neighbor had hers topped, they looked like a Gogh painting! Eventually,she was responsible and had them taken out this past summer, ground to the ground. I had a certified arborist come by to look at our Old Gal, and he only charged 75.00 which will go towards a trim which our Old Gal needs. Great post…love the word “arboricide”-pefect!

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      Thank you thank you! Spread the word as often as you can. I walk through my neighborhood wincing at all the butchered trees… and every time there’s a tornado or ice storm or high wind, I wring my hands in worry… : (

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