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Can you top this? Next time you look at a tree in your yard and think about topping it, think again

Topping is a common practice used to drastically reduce the height and density of a tree. It's cheaper and easier than pruning. It's often also fatal. ``Topping a tree immediately contributes to the decline of its health,'' states Rich Savory, a tree diagnostician and member of the International Society of Arboriculture.

Robert Felix, executive vice-president of the National Arborist Association, agrees.

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``Topping does nothing but cause grief for the tree. It serves no purpose.''

Topping, or pollarding, as it was called in Europe in previous centuries, was used to develop kindling and weaving materials. In this practice, the tree is severely cut back, with most of its limbs and branches sheared off.

All that remains is the trunk and short, stumpy limbs from which develops young bushy growth.

``Topping was once thought to be helpful because of all the bushy new growth at the top,'' explains Mr. Savory. ``Now experts state the practice causes the decline of the tree. The wounds don't cover over well, new suckers catch the wind, and growth is weak.''

As Mr. Felix explains further, ``When you top a tree, the tree reacts by developing buds and sucker growth at the point of the cut. The limb puts out a whole variety of little branches and it becomes a quagmire.

``The little suckers compete with one another and nothing happens -- the tree can't possibly support all the suckers it's got. They begin to die off and the limb that was topped may very well die back.

``A tree, when pruned, should never have more than one-third of its foliage removed,'' he continues.

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``Because topping a tree exposes to the sun an area which may have never been greatly exposed, it could result in sun scald, which also causes a tree to die back.''

Trees should be pruned from the inside out. Dead, crossing, and unnecessary limbs should be removed, while preserving general shape and configuration of the tree. Topping provides no form or shape. It produces a shrub growing on top of a tree.

Fine pruning enhances a tree's natural beauty. It restores vigor and health and, by opening up the tree, it lessens wind resistance.

Nevertheless, homeowners continue to top their trees and many ``tree services'' eagerly perform the task. Why?

``Because,'' Felix charges, ``the industry itself is not big enough to sustain a public awareness program [to distinguish] between proper tree care and `tree trimming.' As a result, anybody with a pickup truck and a chain saw can call himself a tree surgeon and go out and do whatever he wants. In some cases, it borders on the criminal.''

``Topping is easy,'' adds Savory. ``And it's cheap.''

Felix advises that homeowners obtain pruning information from the library and local cooperative extension bureaus. ``Even hardware stores have how-to books and descriptive pamphlets.''

Before engaging a tree service, ascertain that the service is a member of the National Arborist Association or the International Society of Arboriculture. Make sure they are insured and can provide references.

Any reputable service is willing to provide the addresses of two recent jobs -- check them out.

It takes a generation to grow a tall, healthy tree. It only takes a few hours to destroy it.

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