You must admit I have laid off talking about the evils of tree topping for quite a long time. Some new readers might have come on to the gardening scene in the meantime, so this is for them, and for others who might have missed my earlier rants on the subject.
There is virtually nothing good, and a whole lot bad, about cutting the tops out of healthy trees. I will never understand why people spend good money — or even bad money — to have trees ruined for a lifetime by topping.
To review from years back about the evils of topping trees: First, the reasoning. I asked a neighbor many years ago why he had a grove of perfectly healthy oaks topped. Well, he said, they had never been topped before, and I wanted them bushy. Duh. Plant a bush.
Others, with a bit more excuse, must have trees cut back that are endangering utility wires, thus interfering with telephone service — if anyone still has a land line — or the television cable fails and you miss one of the few times Tennessee beats a quality opponent. Just about the only even fair reason for topping is the wire interference. In that case, the better answer is to get the wretched tree(s) cut down and replaced with something that will never grow into the wires, perhaps a crape myrtle or dogwood.
Then there is the lasting effect, to which I alluded a moment ago. Any observant person can drive around our fair city and identify a tree that has been topped, even if it was years before. There will be the telltale thicket of weak branches and twigs, where once there were large and sturdy limbs that are more likely to stand up to storms.
Another justified reason for cutting back a tree is following damage from freezes or other mishaps. The year just elapsed provided a good example. A freeze of 8 degrees on Nov. 13 the year before (2019) maimed crape myrtles mercilessly, leaving them mostly dead in their upper reaches. A cutting back was the only answer, but even then it could have been done in a manner that would prove less deforming to the plant.
Selected branches that were the “deadest” could have been cut back, and the less “dead” ones perhaps preserved. We had several crape myrtles that were damaged, and the most important victim was a 25-year-old ‘Natchez’ in our front garden that has a trunk maybe 8 inches thick. We waited until about early summer to move on the thing, then cut out completely the branches that had not leafed out, and left intact at least parts of the ones showing any life. It worked, and we even got a little late bloom without deforming the tree to an alarming extent.
Another case where topping can be justified, or at least excused, is with Bradford pear trees. They are sorry trees to start with, shooting numerous branches from a common point, the narrow crotches lending themselves to breaking asunder with even just a spanking breeze or heavy snow.
One answer is to top the branches to reduce the load of weight and thus giving them a little more time of life, such as it is. Even then, you will draw up into a knot with every unseasonable weather event, just waiting for them to fall apart. The best answer if you are cursed with Bradford pears, is to send them to the chipper truck and start over, but I will admit that every year older one gets, the decision is harder to make.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.