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Aug. 7, 2022

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Pruning season: Lop a little, not a lot, off the top

Cutting off a treetop is a quick pruning fix, but it has lasting consequences

By , Columbian staff writer
4 Photos
Jonathan Thomas trims a Douglas fir -- the right way -- at Fir Garden Park in east Vancouver on Wednesday. Proper trimming can improve the health of a tree.
Jonathan Thomas trims a Douglas fir -- the right way -- at Fir Garden Park in east Vancouver on Wednesday. Proper trimming can improve the health of a tree. (Natalie Behring/ The Columbian) Photo Gallery

We’ve all felt the pain of a bad haircut. Now, with gardening season here, the city of Vancouver wants to save the local trees from suffering the same fate.

Early spring is an ideal time to prune trees before foliage fills out their branches. However, arborists and the city’s Urban Forestry Program want to remind the public not to be overzealous and make the mistake of topping their trees.

Topping is the indiscriminate removal of the large amounts of a tree’s crown. It might seem like the sensible solution to a tree that’s outgrown its place or appears to be a threat to nearby property — or even as a way to avoid pruning for the next year or two, but experts say otherwise.

“You’ll see negative impacts immediately,” said Jessica George, urban forestry outreach coordinator for the city of Vancouver. “Because, for one, aesthetically the tree looks terrible.”

Beyond that, the tree senses it’s branches — which hold the leaves that allow it to feed itself via photosynthesis — have been cut off, and it works aggressively to replace them. Humans lose because the part of the tree that produces oxygen is cut away.

To restart photosynthesis, the tree forces out many fast-growing new replacement branches, but they are poorly attached throughout the life of the tree, which can be dangerous a few years down the road.

Furthermore, topping drastically reduces the life of the tree.

Municipalities really don’t like when people top their trees, and a lot of private citizens don’t either. George said a nonprofit in Seattle actually shames tree-toppers by posting their addresses. The city of Vancouver, however, takes a much softer approach.

“We really try to provide outreach after the fact not only to the land owner but the company that performs the work,” she said.

Scott Clifton of TreeWise LLC said oftentimes people plant trees for their aesthetics without considering how much they’ll actually grow. He argues it’s best to just replace a tree after a certain period of time than to top it and deal with the repercussions later.

“We don’t just have enough space in parking strips for trees to grow,” he said. “Topping defeats the purpose. You’re trying to make a tree smaller, but you’re inducing growth. And you’re going to be spending money to prune a tree or you’re going to let it overgrow and be unsightly.”

Arborscape owner John Buttrell says tree topping has kind of a domino effect through town — one house will do it and several others will follow. He too says it’s best to just replace a tree entirely than top an existing one.

He said the city has advocated against tree topping for the last 35 years, but it never goes away.

“It’s always been bad but seems this year we’ve all noticed a lot,” he said.

George said people should also consider embracing their large trees because of all the benefits they provide. But if residents do want to prune, the city recommends working with a professional or taking one of the urban forestry departments’ free pruning workshops throughout the year.

Columbian staff writer

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