On Gardening: Think before you prune
Feb 02, 2014 | 5115 views |  0 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As an Extension Agent, my job is to educate and help people. What makes my advice and information different from others is that it is university research-based, credible and usually proven by science. The ongoing challenge is getting people to trust and adopt new information and stop doing things they once did 25 or 50 years ago. This is so true when it comes to discussing abused horticulture and gardening practices.

If I could get on my soap box, I would shout “Stop the excessive pruning!” Please stop topping the trees in your yard, stop murdering the crape myrtles and stop butchering the plants around your house. Despite what was done decades ago, topping trees and other plants is not a recommended horticulture practice. It’s 2014 — we have science to back it up.

Topping is the drastic removal or cutting back of large branches in mature trees, small trees and shrubs. Historically, this has often been done to old pecan trees, mature crape myrtles and large shade trees. Although I cannot tell you why this practice was ever adopted, I can assume it is still done today due to fear that certain plants would become too large and unsafe. Here are some proven reasons why topping should not be done:

1. Starvation

Topping much of the crown of a tree also removes many of the food-producing leaves. Roots need the starch produced by the leaves to grow. Not enough food reserves can prevent the roots from transporting nutrients and water. The tree basically starves.

2. Decay

Large cuts as a result of topping are very slow and difficult to close. Trees do not heal, but have to seal off the area or grow around the wound. Large wounds can invite insects and diseases that encourage decay. If fungal decay was already present, such as in a hidden interior hollow area, then topping not only reveals that decay, but speeds up the process. Weakened stubs that begin to decay or die soon become a hazard and are more prone to wind and storm breakage

3. New growth

People believe they need to top their trees to control the height and spread of a tree. Actually, the opposite happens. In most cases, topping triggers a response in excess long sprouts below the cut. Trees grow back what was removed, usually fourfold, become bushier, and regain their original height. This defeats the presumed reason for pruning in the first place.

4. Weak limbs

Topping is a heading cut. Mature trees respond with dense, unattractive, upright branches (water sprouts) just below the pruning cut. Water sprout regrowth is vigorous and are weakly attached to the parent branch. As they age, their weight can cause them to break off, especially during storms.

5. Ugliness

There is nothing worse than looking at a topped and disfigured tree. Ugly branch stubs, conspicuous pruning cuts, and a broom-like branch growth replace natural beauty and form. Even with regrowth, the pruned tree never regains the grace and beauty of its species. Topping reduces the real estate value of trees by 20 percent t0 100 percent. A correctly trimmed tree increases in value at each pruning. Plants are to be planted and enjoyed for their beauty not abused.

There are indeed special situations where trees might need to be pruned or even entirely removed. Removing a dangerous limb or dead section can easily be justified. I have made such recommendations to homeowners when I felt it was necessary. But don’t let excessive pruning such as topping be an excuse for poor plant selection, improper spacing and ignorance. Do your homework and ask for assistance by educated professionals, like arborists, who know about trees and can back up their recommendations with research and science. Remember, your decisions and actions can have long-term consequences.

For help on other home and garden questions, contact your local county Extension office or visit us online at www.aces.edu.

Shane Harris is an Extension Agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
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