Examples of Improper Tree Pruning

I’ve been collecting some examples if improper tree pruning and it is time to share them with you!

I’ll cover two main types of improper pruning in this article. The first is called “lion-tailing”. It involves taking lateral branches off, almost to the end of each stem. Our native desert trees actually look good when they are trimmed in a very mild version of this method but you have to be careful! Lion-tailed branches have all the weight out on the very end – there is a lot of leverage there. Also, continually stripping laterals from a stem causes it to stay “skinny” and not grow in girth. The end result is a long, skinny branch that is heavy on the end – the kind of branch that will fail in a windstorm, or for no reason at all. Here is what I would consider an extreme case of lion-tailing:

Lion-tailed Palo Verde

 The only remedy for lion-tailing is to let laterals grow on all the branches – if they don’t break in storms first! The new laterals will be suckers, which are never as firmly attached as the original branches that have been removed. It would have been much better for the tree if these original laterals had never been removed at all! One of the dangers to the survival of the tree is that the bark may become sunburned after the tree is stripped, killing portions of the tree leading to its ultimate death. Don’t let anyone do this to your tree!

The second main category of improper pruning that I’m going to cover is called “topping”. Topping is the indiscriminate cutting of branches without regard to laterals. Basically, just deciding to cut off the top of the tree at a certain height or place where there isn’t a fork/lateral.I get calls all the time from people who say their tree is getting too tall. They are worried it will fall on their house. If the tree is structurally sound, there is usually no cause to fear. I always reassure the customer that a tall, strong tree isn’t as dangerous as a short, weak tree! Topping creates a wound that the tree cannot heal. Around the topping cut, suckers sprout (which are weakly attached). The wound rots as the suckers get bigger and heavier. Eventually the suckers (now branches – perhaps very large branches) start tearing apart the trunk/main branches of the now rotted out tree. Topping ruins trees and we will not do it!

But (and there is a but…), once a tree has been topped, it may be necessary to re-top it periodically to keep the suckers from becoming so heavy that the tree is lost. We spend a good bit of our winter work doing just this to old Mulberry trees whose trunks are completely rotten inside.If the tree is very young, and the topping cuts are on very small branches, it may be possible to do a “restoration prune” which involves going to each of the topping cuts and thinning the suckers to only one (or a few). This process must be repeated for several years! Eventually, the tree may layer new (good, sound) wood over the areas of the topping cuts and the tree may be structurally sound again.Either method of remediation is a long and costly process. Sometimes it is faster and cheaper to just remove the tree and start over. It only takes a little time to ruin a tree (or just select branches of a tree) by topping – don’t let anyone do this to your trees!

A Young Topped Palo Verde - Isn't This Ugly?

Here is Another Topped Palo Verde in the Same Yard

These Palo Verdes might be candidates for a restoration prune if it doesn’t die from sunburn first. The tree on the left had been topped in the last year or two, then lion-tailed. I don’t know if it is possible to fix that one.

Topped Palo Verde that Died (probably) from Sunburn

The tree above needs to be removed.

Mildly Topped Mesquite

 A “professional” tree company did this. They had trimmed the trees the two previous years and did a nice job. The customer trusted the crew and left while the work was being done. They were so disappointed when they got home and saw what had happened that they called us and had us take the tree out. We replaced it with a new Mesquite. The tree was planted too deep and had girdling roots too. What a mess!

A Topped Mesquite Tree

This tree has had some of its limbs “topped” – they were cut off because they were hanging too low. Each cut will sucker out and start rotting. What a mess!

Hedge-Trimmed Palo Verde Trees!

At first glance, these Palo Verde trees don’t look too bad, right? Someone really “shaped them up”! Well, perhaps. But, what they really did was top all the exterior branches with a hedge-trimmer. It must have been difficult to do, and in the process, they ruined both trees. I don’t know if it is possible to restore these trees without spending many years and lots of money! Did you know that using a hedge-trimmer on bushes is not the right way to trim them? But, that is a story for another time…

I have saved the best for last. We were driving along the highway in Phoenix and I spotted some trees in the parking lot of one of the businesses in a shopping mall. It appears that every tree on the property was topped at about 8ft from the ground – just leaving the main trunk. Then, when the top re-sprouted and suckers came out, this growth was “shaped up” with a hedge-trimmer. I don’t think I have ever seen such a terrible job of “tree trimming”. None of these trees is salvageable. And now, for your viewing enjoyment…

Chilean Mesquite

Another Chilean Mesquite

Blue Palo Verde

Palo Brea

Another Chilean Mesquite