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A Guide to Tree Care and Maintenance

Tips for keeping your trees healthy and happy

By Jeff McMann

Photo by Rudy Kral

Even with all the benefits trees provide, they are often neglected in a few common ways. There are many tree care misconceptions that are prevalent today, which can harm the tree and do nothing to increase our understanding of these impressive plants. To effectively care for a tree, you must understand how it grows, what it needs and how to properly maintain it. When armed with this knowledge, your trees will not only survive, they will thrive.

The perils of 'topping' trees

Topping is the drastic removal or cutting back of most of a tree's large branches. Trees are often topped so they can fit a given area or be maintained in a smaller shape. Many people (including some landscape professionals) use this process often, believing it does not injure the tree. Many believe topping can 'invigorate' a tree and add value and beauty to a property. However, this process can be extremely harmful; in fact, it severely injures the tree. When you think about the process, it's easy to see how this happens. A proper pruning cut should be made just beyond the branch collar at the branch's point of attachment. The tree is biologically equipped to close such a wound, provided it is healthy enough and the wound is not too large. Topping, however, creates cuts above the branch collar (the swollen area of trunk tissue that forms around the base of a branch), creating stubs with numerous wounds that may not close, which makes the tree susceptible to insect attacks and decay.

Very few trees can defend themselves against multiple severe wounds, like the ones caused by topping. Exposed tissues begin to decay, giving various insects and other organisms a free path to move down through the branches. The tree becomes stressed and, consequently, more vulnerable to insect and disease infestations.

Also, because every tree needs foliage to produce food, a topped tree will try to compensate for the excessive removal of its branches and leaves by exhausting its stored resources to produce new branches. As a result of this quick growth, new branches are weakly attached and more susceptible to breakage and storm damage. A topped tree can easily become hazardous—loose, falling branches can damage property or injure people—making it a liability, rather than an asset. Also, the tree can actually grow to be taller than it was before topping was performed, thanks to the accelerated growth. In the end, you will be left with a tree that lacks all natural beauty and form, and may actually have a negative impact on the overall look of your backyard.

Ultimately, a topped tree will require more of your attention in the future than a properly pruned tree (more on that later). A tree might survive topping, but its lifespan will be significantly reduced in the long run.

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