By Durant Ashmore
With the recent ice storm, tree care is on a lot of people's minds. A frequent question I hear is, "How can I prevent storm damage in the future through proper tree care?"
Last week we discussed the importance of removing snags and stubs so that they don't cause future cavities. In the same manner, it is important to remove dead or diseased limbs that show the mushroom-like fruiting bodies that are the sure sign of fungus deep within the trunk or limb of the tree.
Sometimes, you may hear that the solution to preventing damage from ice storms is to top a tree. This is an outmoded practice and should be avoided. If limbs are overhanging the house or parking areas and they present a danger they should be cut off close to the trunk of the tree or at a major fork. If danger still persists the limbs should be cabled to prevent them from falling.
Topping trees does more harm than good. If you are talking to a tree man who suggests topping a tree you are talking to someone who is not keeping current with the literature. Kindly escort him off your property and call the next name listed in the Yellow Pages. If you want to be sure to get a true professional you should seek an arborist certified by the International Society of Arborists. There are 30 of these gentlemen in our area. They advertise in the phone book, or you can look them up at www.isa-arbor.com.
Many times a tree cannot stand the stress of topping. Seasonal factors can have very detrimental effects on a topped tree. If the tree does live, the resulting branch structure is very weak and after a few years the tree will be as dangerous as ever. Also, the vast increase in the amount of sunlight striking the trunk of the tree will cause it to sucker and cause an abundance of unsightly and unhealthy limbs to emerge.
If a tree lives after being topped it will grow out a multitude of deep V-crotch branches at the point where it was cut. In shrubbery pruning we call this a chicken foot. A deep V crotch is the weakest branch structure in nature. As the limb grows it gets heavier and heavier, putting more and more pressure on a very weak point. Topping may have been recommended to avoid danger. It is ironic that this may lead to a future situation that is more dangerous than may have occurred otherwise.
Topping also is expensive. In many cases proper tree care is much less expensive than topping. The natural shape of a tree is always the healthiest. To those who feel the natural appearance of the landscape is the most desirable, topped trees are an anathema.
An aesthetic has evolved that topped trees look good and are desirable. It is impossible to argue aesthetics. My question has been, "How in the world did this aesthetic evolve in the first place?" I have spent some time pondering this question.
If you will notice, there is a prevalence of topped trees along the spine of the Appalachian mountains. Asheville, Knoxville, Bristol, West Virginia and up into Pennsylvania seem to be the homes of the topped tree ideal. These folks are primarily of Scotch-Irish descent, a group of which I am proud to belong.
For centuries these people practiced pollarding. In this process they would cut a hardwood tree in half about 8 feet off the ground. Soon, the tree would grow suckers that would reach the height of about 6 feet and be an inch or two thick. These suckers were harvested for fence posts. The reason the trees were cut 8 feet off the ground is so livestock wouldn't eat the suckers when they were in a tender state. After the initial suckers were harvested the tree sprouted new suckers and the process was repeated.
This is the only explanation I have found as to why these Scotch-Irish descendants think topped trees look good. The initial reasons for the practice have passed, yet the aesthetic has remained. They do it because this is what they have seen all their lives and may not be aware of the alternatives.
If you think this explanation is a stretch, you need only to look at what your neighbors are doing to their crape myrtles. Crape myrtle should not be topped, yet we are in the middle of the crape murder season. Folks see their neighbors doing it and they think that is the thing to do. This is a self-perpetuating fallacy. This is a bad process for the tree, but an aesthetic has evolved and, hey, you can't argue aesthetics.
Columnist Durant Ashmore, MLA, of Fountain Inn, is certified by the South Carolina Nursery Association. He can be reached at 243-3446 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.