Pruning 101: Accidental Tree Topping

Tree pruning is an essential part of maintaining the health of a young tree, and in most cases, it’s a safe DIY project for a well-informed homeowner.


Tree pruning is an essential part of maintaining the health of a young tree, and in most cases, it’s a safe do-it-yourself (DIY) project for a well-informed homeowner with small trees. But for larger, mature trees with tall limbs, DIY pruning can be especially dangerous—and may require being elevated off the ground for an extended period of time or advanced cutting skills (either with a hack-saw or chainsaw). But if you’re new to pruning, it’s easy to accidentally over-trim or “top” a tree, and the consequences can be particularly disastrous.

Pruning vs. Topping: What’s the Difference?

Selective tree pruning is a process that involves trimming or removing certain branches with careful regard to the tree’s foundation and growth structure. The primary goals of selective tree pruning are to help promote tree health and safety as well as control branches that pose the risk of encroaching on power lines, houses, or other unwanted areas.

Tree topping is the practice of arbitrarily and drastically removing branches at the top of a tree without considering the tree’s structural support. Topping can be extremely damaging because it involves cutting branches that are essential to the shape and overall health of a tree.

Also called heading, stubbing, or dehorning, most arborists agree that topping is an outdated pruning technique—and with little experience, many first-time pruners unintentionally compromise the structure of a tree by arbitrarily removing branches without a second thought.

The Hazards of Tree Topping 

Topping creates unnecessary stresses for a healthy tree and makes it more susceptible to fail in inclement weather. In some cities, such as Seattle, tree topping is considered illegal.

Aside from an unsightly appearance, topping negatively affects trees by causing:

  • Disease (tree rot or decay)
  • Tree starvation
  • A weak structure
  • Frail branches or limbs

New Tree Pruners: Might want to Hire a Professional

It only takes a few improper cuts to cause fatal damage to a tree, so if you’re unsure of how to safely prune, it might be best to schedule a consultation to help you determine the best option.