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Topping Trees

"Topping": Is it Ever Okay to Cut the Tip Off a Tree?

Q. I love the show's 'fascinatin' phone calls'; and a recent one about cutting the tops off of trees made me wonder about our pruning for 'view preservation'. We live on a hilltop overlooking the Susquehanna River amid 17 acres of mature deciduous trees. We do top some of these trees every few years to keep our view, but are now questioning this practice. What do you think about our situation? Is there a best way to do this?"

---"Devoted listener" Linda in Montour county PA

A. Well, our listeners have only heard me warn against the so-called 'topping' of trees, so if most of you out there were to venture a guess, you'd probably say that I'm about to tell Linda to stop…

But it just so happens that an article in a recent issue of 'Cosmopolitan Magazine' says that men shouldn't be predictable; and I'm going to follow that advice and say that if it's done correctly and at the right time of year, it should be fine. Perhaps even beneficial.

(No, I don't normally read Cosmo, but it was the only magazine I could find the last time I got my hair cut. Well, not the ONLY one, but I blew through the latest issue of "Highlights for Children" pretty fast. Did you know that they're still doing "Goofus and Gallant"?!)

Anyway, let's get back to 'The Timbertoes'…

Now, cutting the top off of an evergreen that comes to a point, like a Blue Spruce, Frazer fir or other Christmas tree type is always wrong. It destroys the basic structure and removes the part of the tree that's most actively growing. At best, the tree will look really ugly for the rest of its life. At worst, it can cause premature death. So instead of having a tree that you found a little too tall, you now have the huge expense of having a dead tree removed.

And if you continue to flail and don't have the stump pulled, you end up with a huge empty spot that you can't put a new tree into because there's a giant wooden plug in the ground. But deciduous trees—the ones that drop their leaves in the Fall—can be safely topped.

Now, if you know in advance that you're going to want to control the height of a tree, it's best to start when they're young. Actually, it would be 'better best' to plant dwarf varieties—or at the very least, trees that naturally develop several 'leaders'—the topmost branches up in the canopy. The best shade trees have lots of leaders up top, allowing them to 'spread out' naturally. To shorten these kinds of trees, you just remove the tallest 'leading branches' every season or two. Then the tallest branches that remain become the new leaders .

I've often talked about having to "establish a new central leader" for each of my peach trees every year, and what we're talking about doing here with landscape trees is essentially what I do to try and keep my peaches at a workable height. When you prune—and with peaches and apples you MUST prune every year to get high quality fruit—it just makes sense to begin by removing the highest branches, to keep as many of the fruits as possible within easy reach. "Low hanging fruit"—that's exactly what the expression means.

And ten years of peachy pruning has taught me that establishing new central leaders every season induces the trees to grow outward as opposed to up; which for me, means trees that are much easier to care for and pick, and for non-fruiting trees, means more cooling shade over a wider area. And if pest problems like tent caterpillars arise, they're much easier to reach.

But people should NOT start training their trees now. This is the worst time to trim healthy branches. Trees and other perennial plants are trying to go dormant in the Fall, and pruning stimulates growth. Forcing that new growth steals energy from the roots and makes the trees very vulnerable to winter injury. In no way is it good for them.

Especially with this kind of pruning, where you want to be able to look at the absolute bare bones of the tree to make the best choices, the ideal time is the dead of winter. Without their leaves, the trees are a blank canvas—and 'dormant pruning' in winter doesn't stimulate growth. If it's a flowering tree, like my peaches or an ornamental cherry, you can wait until it's in full flower or right after, but the dead of winter is always going to be best.

And yes, it's also when you want to do work like this the least. And that's almost a firm rule of gardening. If it's a good time for you, it's probably a wretched time for the plants. If it's a pain in the tikkas, it's probably the right time.

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