Pacific Northwest | December 21, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineDecember 21, home
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Tree Torture
When you lop the top, you invite trouble
This big leaf maple sadly lost a tussle with an overzealous chainsaw. The poor tree is still alive — although you'd never know it — and well on its way to becoming a serious hazard, as well as a mass of ugly twigs, when it grows back.
It's ironic that we spend so much time picking out the perfectly shaped Christmas tree, only to discard it in a couple of weeks. Yet people continue to over-prune, mal-prune and cut off the tops of trees they look at every day of the year, trees that would grow into lovely natural shapes if they were just left alone long enough. Even if we don't wrap our garden and street trees in lights or top them off with a star, can't we see how much better they look with their tops on rather than hacked off?

Cass Turnbull, pruner extraordinaire and founder of Seattle-based PlantAmnesty, wants everyone to know that topping isn't just about aesthetics. Tree pruning is a matter of public safety. "Over half of the tree industry is made up of people who top trees. And that's consumer fraud," declares Turnbull. She wants everyone to understand that tree topping just doesn't work. Rather than controlling growth, topping makes trees ugly, devalued and unsafe: "And consumers pay to do this to themselves."
Illustration Now In Bloom
The frilliest, prettiest Christmas flowers in the garden are Camellia sasanqua, a lax evergreen shrub from Japan that is at its best espaliered against a wall or trellis. The shiny dark-green leaves show off single or double flowers ranging from pure white through holiday red, many centered with a bright yellow stamen. Many have fragrant flowers; all have blooms that turn brown during the coldest weather but will flower again when it warms up a little. Sasanquas can tolerate sun and even drought once established. C. sasanqua 'Jean May' is a shell-pink double; 'Yuletide' is a profuse bloomer with bright red single flowers.
If it sounds like Turnbull talks in sound bites, that's because she's spent the past 16 years passionately campaigning for good pruning. PlantAmnesty's mission is to educate the public, landscapers and lawmakers on the subject. Turnbull's ambitious new goal is to end all tree topping in Seattle. She wants a city ordinance that prohibits it and requires landscapers and tree services to adhere to nationally recognized standards for pruning. A recent grant from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources will give her campaign a boost.

While many of us find topped trees a disgraceful and disturbing sight, Turnbull says the bottom line is that poor pruning results in decayed trees. A big limb can crash down due to a bad cut made 20 years ago. Around the country, school districts and property owners have paid large settlements when trees have broken off and seriously injured people. Pruning doesn't prevent hazardous trees — it creates them.

When Turnbull started her campaign in 1987, 63 percent of the tree services in the Seattle Yellow Pages advertised tree topping; now only 8 percent do. Turnbull is greatly encouraged by cities such as Corvallis and Denver, where tree topping is the exception. Thanks to enlightened city leaders and a tradition of good tree care, these cities have succeeded in saving their trees from disfigurement. Where is Seattle in this continuum between leafy canopy and butchery? Turnbull thinks we're right in the middle, in part, she says, because Seattle is reluctant to enforce even the feeble laws that are on the books to protect trees in public right-of-ways.

What stands in the way of Turnbull's aim to save Seattle's tree canopy? She believes the main problem is the continued belief that size can be dictated by pruning. Trees are genetically programmed to grow to a certain size, and pruning doesn't deter that. Tree topping has even been called vandalism for profit, because it not only ruins a tree's looks, but can kill it. Turnbull explains it this way: "People think they're cutting hair when they prune their trees, but it's more like cutting off your hands and feet. You're cutting into a vital body part of the plant, and it introduces decay." If your hair really did grow like a tree, every time you cut it, it would grow back out, twice as bushy, in just a couple of days.

So how can you deal with oversized trees? There's no good way to keep a tree short, says Turnbull. "Exercise your control over trees when you select them, not later when they've grown too large."

For help in selecting the right-sized tree in the first place, check out or call the Plant Answer Line at 206-UW-PLANT. For reliable information on tree care, refer to or the Web site of the International Society of Arboriculture at

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is

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