Problematic Pollarding

By Jeff Rugg

July 3, 2019 5 min read

Q: I've got two trees in my yard that were pruned years ago — before I bought — by someone who had no idea what they were doing. The result is large branches that look like "clubs." All new growth comes from the end of the clubs. Imagine your forearm as the branch and your fist as the end, with a branch or two growing in every direction. What is the remedy?

A: There are two types of pruning that can produce what you have described. Neither is particularly good for the tree's health, and both are expensive to maintain. Let's take the worst case first.

Your tree was likely "topped," though regionally it may be called "headed," "tipped," "hat-racked" or "rounded over." It is the most harmful pruning method used on trees. It is common for people to want to reduce the size of a tree, thinking it is growing too large or that it will become a hazard. Ironically, chopping all the branches off creates a much more hazardous tree for the future.

Cutting off so much of the tree causes it to go into a defensive mode, as it tries to replace its leaves. The tree forces the rapid growth of many new branches from what is left of the old branch. These new branches are only attached just under the bark — not fully attached into the old wood, as the cut-off branches were formerly attached. The tree is under a lot of stress, as it uses its resources to grow new branches. At the same time, large wounds must begin to heal, for the exposed sapwood attracts insects and decaying disease organisms. The exposed stubs are the worst possible pruning cut, as the branch cannot heal over the exposed ends, allowing decay organisms a direct path to the center of the tree. Hollow trees of any size are much less safe than large, healthy trees.

The fast growth and weak attachment of the new branches makes them very prone to breaking off. The longer and larger they grow, the more hazardous they become. A tree that has been topped will not regain its natural, pretty shape. Topped trees lower property values because this method of pruning is considered unsafe and unacceptable. Topped trees must be pruned so that the small branches don't grow too large. Never hire the person who tops trees to do more pruning.

If necessary, trees can be reduced in height through proper pruning methods that cut lateral branches back to the parent limb, with a small cut that will easily heal over. This type of pruning is healthy for the tree and can be easily maintained in the future. A licensed arborist will know how to do this.

Unfortunately, not every tree gets to be pruned by people at all. Hurricanes and tornadoes can damage trees so that they look like they were topped. If such trees are to be kept in the landscape, a licensed arborist should begin managing the care of the tree. Many times, right after a storm, people aren't too concerned about a tree's long-term health: They just want someone to cut off the broken pieces. Now that you own the tree and are caring for it, check out the International Society of Arboriculture website for better information on care and how to find a local licensed arborist.

The other high maintenance method of pruning similar to what you have described is called pollarding. It can be seen at some tourist attractions in the states and many European cities. I have seen it done near Niagara Falls and on Lombard Street — the crookedest street in San Francisco.

In this case, the trees are pruned yearly. Eventually, a large ball of wound tissue and old, pruned-off stubs is created at the end of the old, large branches. In the summertime, when fully leafed out, these trees kind of look like the lollipop trees kids draw (a large circle of leaves at the top of a big, old stick).

It is best to start pollarding on young trees so that a smaller branch is cut originally and may heal over. Continuous pollard pruning is necessary or else the tree will end up becoming a hazard, just like the topped tree. Pollarded trees that have been neglected require careful pruning in the future to rebuild a proper, safe shape.

Some trees have strong wood that is resistant to decay and breakage. The long, strong stems that come off the pollarded tree can be used to make canes and other wooden sticks. In the states, some oaks, ash, crape myrtles, maples and lindens can be pollarded. Others, such as willows and poplars, make hazardous pollards.

Email questions to Jeff Rugg at [email protected] To find out more about Jeff Rugg and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

Photo credit: BabaMu at Pixabay

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