The problem: you have a beautiful view, but it is blocked by a beautiful tree. What can you do?

Share story

What is tree topping?

Tree topping is the practice of removing an entire top portion of a tree, including parts of the trunk, leader branches, as well as small branches. It is a practice going back a hundred years or more, started in the Pacific Northwest and mostly used by loggers. Loggers topped trees to create high rigging points so large firs and cedars could be removed more easily. It was once considered a way to make the trees safe in high winds, but has since been abandoned by most arborists or tree service companies, especially as the science and understanding around tree physiology has grown.

“Any legitimate tree service will not top a tree that hasn’t already been topped,” says Jory Cuttitte of Eastside Tree Works. “It’s just an outdated practice.” Cuttitte says it can be necessary to top a tree if the tree already has been topped, as that shaping has to be continuously maintained.

Why is tree topping to be avoided?

Once you top a tree, you will always have to top the tree. Because tree topping removes the top of a tree, it sprouts new “leaders” and branches, and essentially grows another “top.”

“If you don’t retop it regularly at that point, all of those branches up top that are making those new tops, it creates what we would call a cavity. All the water starts to collect in between all those new branches where that cut was made. And the tree will start to decay downward from there,” Cuttitte says. “It’s just a matter of time before that tree is going to completely die.”

Topped trees grow top heavy, and become dangerous over time, especially if they haven’t been retopped regularly.  “What happens is a tree ends up being a lot bigger at the top, its weight displacement is off, it creates a big wind sail on tops of the trees, and they are much more likely to fall over in windstorms,” Cuttitte says.

Topping a tree is safe in the short term, Cuttitte says, but the tree then develops fast-growing, weak wood to compensate for the loss of its top. The new top grows from a weak attachment point and the tree is less safe than it was initially. If it’s topped again, the tree is once again made safer in the short term but it is even more dangerous in the long term because more decay is likely to develop from the new wounds.

Prune instead of topping

Trees that already have been topped need to be continuously maintained, but Cuttitte says the best method to deal with trees that have overgrown is to simply prune them.

Customers who want to keep their views can get what he calls “windowing” done. Think of it like giving your tree a very trendy haircut.

With windowing, “you’re opening up certain areas of the branches or of the canopy, instead of just taking the top off, you’re just thinning it out in these certain areas, so that you can still get that view without actually having to take the top off,” Cuttitte says.

Regular pruning, or structural pruning, is also useful, with or without a view. Structural pruning can scale back trees that have gotten too big and unwieldy, or trees that are starting to come into contact with power lines or the house.

On a sprawling maple tree, for instance, “You would basically be reducing all of the edges and then top it down — the branches — rather than actually cutting the trunk,” Cuttitte says. This way, there’s no cavity being created. A cavity is likely to occur the first time the top is removed and the heartwood is exposed, Cuttitte says.

When should you prune?

While many of the evergreens found in the Pacific Northwest can be pruned year-round, there are some tree types that need to be pruned in winter, Cuttitte says. “A lot of pruning, the best time to do it is in the winter when trees are dormant. But that really only goes for deciduous trees, which are trees that lose their leaves in the fall,” he says.  Once they’ve lost leaves, they essentially go dormant. And that’s the safest time to prune them because they’re not spending energy trying to create the leaves.”

Trees that need “fine pruning”— Japanese maples, or other ornamental deciduous trees —definitely need to be pruned in the winter.

Pruning a tree can cost anywhere from $550 to $10,000, says Cuttitte. There are many variables to consider — including the type of tree, the size of the tree, the distance to the “drag zone” (area from the removal site to the location of the chipper), and whether or not a crane is needed.

A tree and a view

Though tree topping might seem like a simple way to get back that view, as Cuttitte points out, with pruning, it’s kinder to the environment and to the tree. “It looks better, because it looks more natural,” he says. “You can still appreciate the trees and still have your view. So it’s a win-win.”

Eastside Tree Works has been providing commercial and residential tree services to Seattle and the Eastside area since 2005. From 24-hour emergency service to tree pruning or removal and stump grinding, Eastside Tree Works delivers professional workmanship at competitive rates.