Topping trees is almost always a bad idea, a notion that hit home hard with Olympia resident Dan Meyers last week.
A silver maple that adorns his Sawyer Street front yard is a diseased and hazardous tree, the innocent victim of tree-topping carried out first about 15 years ago and again a few years back, Olympia urban forester Joe Roush said.
The end result is seven gangly, 300-pound limbs that sprouted after the tree was topped. The limbs stretch out over the house and the driveway.
"Any one of those could crush a car," Roush said.
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Hold the chain saws
Under the right conditions, the tree would have one main trunk with three or four sturdy main branches.
As is the case with most trees, it should have been left alone to grow with an occasional light pruning, not the chain sawmassacre approach all too visible in commercial parking strips and private properties around South Sound.
"The best trees in town are the ones that aren't fiddled with," said Neal Wolbert, owner of Wolbert's Landscape Healthcare.
Meyers, who bought the Sawyer Street house several weeks ago, now will have to pay an estimated $500 to $700 to have the maple tree cut down. Plus, he loses a mature tree in his front yard.
"Frankly, this tree scares me," he said. "I plan to have it removed in the next two weeks."
In many cases, tree topping is done because property owners just don't know any better. They think that topping a tree will solve a variety of problems, rather than create problems, said Galen Wright, owner of Washington Forestry Consultants in Olympia.
Here's a look at some of the most common reasons why topping hurts trees, based on information from the International Society of Arboriculture and Plant Amnesty, a Seattle-based group eager to stamp out so-called malpruning:
• First of all, topping a tree won't keep the tree small. The growth rate of leafed trees accelerates once it is topped. Within a few years, it is close to its original size.
• Topping is very stressful for the tree, making it more vulnerable to disease and insects. Leaves are the tree's food factories, so massive removal of those leaves starves the tree.
• Trees that are topped often become a hazard. The shoots that grow back are weak limbs prone to breaking off in wind and snowstorms. And if decay is severe enough, the tree can rot and topple over.
• A topped tree is expensive to maintain because it requires topping over and over again.
"There's a financial return to landscape maintenance companies, but it is totally wrong for the tree," Wolbert said.
• Finally, topping trees destroys their natural shape, turning the biological wonder of a branching tree into an offensive eyesore.
"It is decapitation, it is brutality," Wolbert said.
Trees versus signs
At commercial sites, tree topping often is done to ensure that passersby can see the business' sign. However, in many cases, a topped tree with leafy sprouts will quickly obscure the sign behind it.
The key to avoiding tree-sign conflicts is to pick the right kind of landscape tree - a single leader species that grows quickly and vertically, Wolbert said. That allows pruning from the bottom up - a practice called raising the crown, which can bring the sign back into view underneath the tree.
Proper placement of a sign can avoid tree-sign conflicts, too.
The cities of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater go to great lengths to pick the right kind of trees to plant along their streets.
In Olympia alone, there are more than 1,500 trees, representing 18 species, Roush said.
There are times when treetopping is inevitable, such as when trees are located under power lines, Wolbert said.
"And sometimes you have cut dead wood out of a tree's top as a safety measure," he said.
While Meyers is about to lose a tree in front of his home because of malpruning, there is one small consolation: He is a woodworker.
"I'll salvage some of the wood, but I'd rather have the tree," he said.