St. George parks director warns against predatory ‘tree topping’ services

ST. GEORGE — As landscaping work isn’t exactly viable during the winter months in northern Utah, some companies will travel to Southern Utah and go door to door offering a tree care service often referred to as “tree topping.”

Shane Moore, director of the Parks and Community Services Department for the city of St. George, describes healthy-looking trees at Vernon Worthen Park as opposed to ones that have been harmed in the past through the practice of tree topping, St. George, Utah, March 15. 2024 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

While the practice is sold as a way to thin and reduce the overall size of the tree, it can also harm and eventually even kill the tree.

“That’s what we see this time of year,” Shane Moore, the city of St. George’s park and community services director, recently told St. George News.

“We see landscapers come down to try and drum up work, and they’re really predatory,” Moore said. “They’ll go house to house, look at a tall, beautiful tree and say, ‘Hey, just to let you know, we think your tree is dangerous.’ And then they’ll go up and top the tree … And then the homeowner’s left with a tree new that’s been severely damaged and sometimes never recovers.”

Tree topping was a widely used practice until it began to be discouraged in the last 40-plus years as “tree science” became better understood, Moore said.

Tree topping

Just what is tree topping? As stated above, it’s a harmful practice. But why?

Moore explained that tree topping causes the improper removal of branches in a way that sabotages a tree’s growth and lifespan. He compared a tree’s branches with energy storage units the tree loses and then tries to compensate for by sprouting smaller branches in rapid fashion around the cut.

An example of the results of improper branch cutting due to tree topping some 30-plus years ago at Vernon Worthen Park, St. George, Utah, March 15. 2024 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

These branches, sometimes called “water suckers,” grow with weak connections to the rest of the tree and can more easily snap off and fall due to a strong wind or other factors. These branches also grow at two to three times the pace of regular branches and defeat the purpose of reducing the tree’s size at a faster rate.

As they grow, the water branches also tend to make the topped trees unsightly in appearance.

The resulting wounds do not heal properly and can invite infection, insects and eventual rot into the tree. This can reduce the tree’s overall lifespan.

“Correctly pruned trees are cut close to the swollen area of wood at the base of the branch called the branch collar,” Moore said in a previous article he wrote for the city. “When a cut is made just in front of the branch collar, the wood is able to grow over the cut, allowing it to heal and prevent infection.”

Long-term impacts

In mid-March, Moore showed St. George News examples of tree topping evident on a handful of older trees at Vernon Worthen Park. The trees had been topped sometime in the 1980s before the damage caused by the practice was more widely known, Moore said.

An example of a proper cut made to a tree that is healing over time and not festering or weakening the tree, St. George, Utah, March 15. 2024 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

He showed weak branch connections around improper cuts that hadn’t properly healed. Moore said the city may need to remove the trees soon due to their age and overall weakness connected to being topped over 30 years ago.

In contrast, he pointed to examples where proper cuts were made at the branch collar that were also healed over.

A knock at the door

The “predatory” landscaping companies usually visit the Southern Utah area between January and April, Moore said.

If someone from one of those companies happens to appear on your doorstep, Moore said the first question to ask is if they have a certified arborist on staff.

Conks growing out of a mulberry tree that was also improperly topped over 20 years ago, St. George, Utah, Oct. 26, 2023 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News

“A reputable tree care business will present that information right off the bat,” he said.

If they don’t, he advises residents to refuse the service and contact the city about the issue so it can be investigated.

Moore also previously wrote in a previous article that “there are many companies working in St. George that are neither qualified nor licensed to work on or in trees. If you or your business is solicited for tree work, verify that the company is licensed and bonded with ISA. Make sure that the work being done to your tree is necessary and needed.”

Leave city trees alone

An example of the tree topping near Vernon Worthen Park, St. George, Utah, March 15. 2024 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

As per city code, trees planted in the city’s right of way can’t be touched by anyone unless they are an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture.

Any pruning of city trees without proper certification and permission from the city can result in a fine and a citizen possibly being responsible for replacing the value of the tree. This can end up amounting to thousands of dollars. The company’s business license may also be revoked over the issue.

“Those are two things people need to be aware of,” he said. “You can be fined and lose your business license. And we do go after businesses when they are improperly working on city trees.”

Bartlett’ Tree Experts, a widely recognized company in the realms of arboriculture and tree care,  also offers a quick rundown of tree topping and its effect in a short YouTube shared below:


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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2024, all rights reserved.

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