Topping Trees is Bad Practice

At least once a month, we get a request for topping someone’s trees. The reasons are myriad: The tree is blocking the view, it’s impinging on satellite service, it’s deemed too tall and hazardous, or someone just likes the look. On the surface, topping doesn’t seem like a bad idea. You get to keep your tree and have it out of your way. In reality, though, topping is a terrible practice, and we try to dissuade all our clients from having it done.

Why is topping trees so bad?

There are a lot of reasons, but first and foremost is that it will likely kill your tree. Hacking it back may not kill it this year or next, but your tree’s lifespan will definitely be shortened.

Topping drastically reduces a tree’s leaf mass, limiting the tree’s ability to produce food and sustain itself. This causes root dieback.  Also, the site of an indiscriminate topping cut can provide access to decay, insects, and disease. And limbs newly exposed to sun without the protection of the canopy may become sunburned, leading to cankers and branch death. All of this leads to an unhealthy, unstable tree.

Furthermore, topping often leads to something we call “witchbrooming.” This is where a multitude of branches sprout from near the cut. These epicormic branches are weakly attached and can grow up to 20 feet in one year. Such limbs are susceptible to breakage in storms, causing more damage than the tree originally would have.

Another problem with topping is that it will ultimately cost you more in the long run. More frequent pruning will be necessary to mitigate branch failure risks and to rein in the height of the new epicormic branches. Furthermore, as the tree’s health declines, it may just have to be removed after a number of years.

Finally, topped trees are ugly. When you consider that healthy, well-maintained trees can add 10-20 percent to the value of your property – and topped trees can be seen as a safety risk – why would any homeowner request the practice?

What’s a homeowner to do instead?

However, there are healthy approaches to canopy reduction. One method is called “drop-crotching,” where tall limbs are cut back to an appropriate branch that can take on a terminal role. This branch must be at least one-third the size of the one removed. Drop-crotching can diminish height while maintaining the shape and health of a tree. However, this is only appropriate for trees with a rounded, or decurrent, shape. Pyramidal, or excurrent, trees (think conifers) simply cannot have their height reduced without negative consequences.

In some cases, the best practice is to remove the problem tree and replace it with one better suited to the site.

If you are considering topping your tree, please give us a call. We can offer alternative approaches that may solve the problem at hand.

For more information, read “The Myth of Tree Topping,” from PlantAmnesty, “Why Topping Hurts Trees,” from the International Society for Arboriculture, or “What’s Wrong with Topping Trees?” from Purdue University.

It’s no surprise that such extensive topping killed this tree. If you want to cut a tree back that much, it’s better to just remove it entirely.
These Norway spruce trees will be unable to heal over the wounds that topping created, thus leading to rot and structurally unsound trees.

Random Musings from The Lumberjill

In case you were wondering what goes on in a female arborist’s head…

The Lumberjill

Once upon a time, I was not a Lumberjill, but a writer. I was poor but creatively fulfilled and somewhat prolific. I wrote a lot. Now, with a thriving business and family, I rarely have time to pick up the proverbial pen. But the folks at the Sandpoint Reader give me reason to, holding space for a regular column called “The Lumberjill.”

It turns out that, during long days feeding the chipper and moving logs, many thoughts move through my brain. It’s fun to have an outlet for those musings. It’s fun to be The Lumberjill.

The column won’t help you diagnose tree health issues or assess hazard trees. Sorry. It’s not that kind of writing. (Call us if you need help with any of that stuff.) Instead, it’s a look into my stream-of-arborist-consciousness as it relates to gender issues, work-life balance, family dynamics, shifting life goals, the highs and lows of service sector work, and more. It’s the world as seen through the lens of Bugz. My Bugz, specifically.

The Lumberjill is in no way required reading, but if you’ve got time to kill—perhaps while waiting for your busy local arborist to show up and provide an estimate—head on over to the Sandpoint Reader and have a look around. I’m certainly not the only columnist worth reading there. But if you feel like checking out The Lumberjill’s musings, I’d be happy to hear what you think.

Root Rot: Digging Deeper

It’s worth taking a closer look at the root rot affecting our firs

In a previous post, we looked at the dieback affecting area fir trees in more general terms. Now, it’s time to get up close and personal with a more specific ailment: root rot.

root rot
Young grand firs tend to succumb quickly to root rot, browning out before any needle loss occurs.

This issue is at the root—pun intended—of fir mortality in the region. Douglas firs and grand firs are highly susceptible to North Idaho’s three most prevalent kinds of root rot: annosus, Armillaria, and laminate. All three kinds of rot are likely present in a single stand. They may even be present in a single tree. The fungi spread easily between trees; all it takes is for an infected root to make contact with another tree’s roots underground. And the diseases can live for up to fifty years in a dead tree’s stump or roots. They can even survive fire.

This perniciousness leads some to refer to root rot as a “disease of the site.” This means it doesn’t leave when infected trees leave. It remains. And it spreads, up to a foot outward from the center of infection each year.

Telltale signs of infection include: crown thinning, foliage discoloration, reduced growth, pitching out at the base, and production of many cones known as “stress cones.” But here’s the scary part: Only half of the trees currently suffering from root rot are presenting above ground symptoms. Our trees are dying, and we don’t even know the half of it. Quite literally.

What’s a landowner to do?

Sadly there is little we can do to eradicate root rot. It’s here to stay. Homeowners can try to protect still-healthy firs on their properties by removing sick trees and any firs whose roots might be in contact with the infected ones. However, seeing as half the trees suffering root rot aren’t expressing symptoms yet, it seems we can only address the problem after it’s too late. A large tree might not become symptomatic until over fifty percent of its roots have been destroyed.

root rot
This dead grand fir is ringed by its fallen kin, but the surrounding larch are unaffected.

One method that some homeowners and foresters are experimenting with is simply eradicating all fir trees. Then they start over by planting root rot resistant larch and pines. Such an approach is not ideal in the short term, but it may be our best bet for forest health in the long run.

Unfortunately, there’s not much we as arborists can do to administer to your firs…beyond treating sickly ones at the base with a chainsaw. However, if you have any questions or want an assessment of your trees or forest, don’t hesitate to give us a call.

For more information, visit these sites addressing root rot:

Wildland Fire is Keeping Our Crew Busy

It’s not all about trees when wildland fire season arrives…

Summer has become scary for most of us in the West, with wildland fire surrounding us for much of the summer season—and beyond. Currently, over one million acres are burning nationwide, and upwards of 26,000 firefighters are working to contain those blazes. Sand Creek Tree Service is proud to be among them, devoting time, personnel and equipment to the fire-suppression cause.

Our water truck on hand for a blaze in Nevada this year

In addition to our arborist work in and around Sandpoint, we are on-call with the Forest Service during wildland fire season and can be summoned anywhere in the nation. This year, our equipment is spending a lot of time in Nevada. We operate a water truck that assists in wildland fire suppression. This work can wreak havoc with our tree-care schedule, but it makes us so grateful to return to the cool shade of our area’s treescapes when time allows.

If you live outside of Sandpoint city limits, you’re likely surrounded by trees. Most of us live here because we love the forest; we enjoy looking out our window onto expanses of cedar, hemlock, pine and fir. North Idaho offers this in spades. However, come fire season, forests become fuel, and it’s scary living inside the tinderbox. So, beyond making a stump farm of one’s acreage, what’s a forest-bound resident to do?

fire season

A healthy forest makes for a healthy burn. A healthy burn will likely leave your home safe.

Fuels reduction is the key. Trees must be thinned, concentrating on increasing space between canopies. Down below, ladder fuels (vegetation that allows a wildland fire to climb from the forest floor to the canopy) must be reduced, including branches, brush and young trees. Surface fuels (dead and downed timber and limbs) should be removed as well as they can harbor and build heat during a fire. As an additional safety measure, residents can clear a swath of trees through the forest 5 to 15 feet wide that acts as a fuels break. This gives firefighters an advantage when trying to save homes. Basically, the idea is to manage fuels so that when a wildland fire does come, it acts as a healthy ground fire that cleans up the forest while sparing large trees and structures.

A fire in Nevada comes dangerously close to town.

At Sand Creek Tree Service, we’re not just arborists; we’re also wildland firefighters. We know how to keep forests healthy and safe, and we’d rather do that than battle flames at anyone’s doorstep.

The lesson we’ve learned on fires is to make sure your home is defensible. And not just your home, but access to your home as well. If you have a long driveway with thick trees, reduce fuels on each side of the road 5 to 20 feet back depending on the fuel types. That means thinning some trees, removing saplings, and limbing up larger trees. Another thing to consider is whether there is enough room to get a fire engine down your driveway and turned around.

Of course, we can’t predict wildland fires, but it never hurts to be prepared. Even if the landscape doesn’t ignite this year, it will at some point. Such is the nature of a densely forested environment.

Sand Creek Tree Service can help with all fuels reduction work. We know what a defensible home looks like; and sadly, we’re familiar with properties that don’t stand a chance. Call us today for an assessment of your property.
Also, to stay apprised of fire potential predictions for our region, visit the
National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook page for updates through the summer.