My Winter Pet Peeve…

Welcome to the blog, thanks for stopping by.

I may be making a mistake beginning a blog with a critical article, but I’m willing to take the chance.  Please know my intention is not to belittle or demean anyone personally, only to inform and present horticulturally sound options to my pet peeve.

That pet peeve that never seems to go away, and is in full view during the dormant season.  It’s the mutilation of trees that were poorly chosen or have outgrown their spot on commercial sites.  

Most street and parking lot trees should be replaced at about 15 years, but often the option to cut them is employed over replacement.  Most often it’s done incorrectly by workers who haven’t been schooled in proper pruning techniques and just want to get the job done as quick as possible.  Truth is, topping doesn’t slow growth down, it actually speeds it up, so it’s never the right approach.



I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool tree hugger per se, but I agonize when I see trees brutalized like this.  My plant pathologist friend Dr. Olaf Ribeiro, uses a more descriptive term…”decapitated”.  I can hardly wait until the leaves show up in the spring to cover up some of the butchering.   I groan, moan and mutter my way past commercial properties that look like a helicopter flew over up-side-down shearing off the tops of trees.  We’ve all seen it, we can’t ignore it, and sadly the model is all too often replicated in the residential community, a more serious concern for sure.  Even though most cities have a no-tree-topping ordinance, as Tumwater, Olympia and Lacey do, the sad practice continues.

Parking lot and street  trees are specified by all cities now to create a sense of welcome and comfort (especially on hot summer days) and reduce pollution, but in some cases it looks like they are being punished for just being there!

The reasons?  Some are baffling …”We don’t want the trees to get too tall…”.  Really, why is tall bad?  I haven’t seen an overhead wire in a parking lot for many years, but way to often trees are hacked into totally unnatural shapes, flat-topped being the most popular it seems…ugh….

“We don’t want to clean up so many leaves.”  Actually, topping trees creates more leaves, not less, due to the multiple (epicormic) sprouting that occurs when branches are blunt cut.  In addition, the surge of tender foliage produced by the sprouting is often the target of disease and insects as well, creating another maintenance problem.

We hear…”We want to make sure people can see the signs.”  I can certainly understand this dilemma. Businesses pay a bunch to get their name in front of the public and are required to grow trees as well.  The common practice is to top trees below the signs, but that doesn’t solve the problem, they just grow back in one season and cover up the signs, so the the topping happens over and over again, which benefits the tree cutters, I’m sure but the trees, and we who view them suffer.

The photo below is another commercial site close to the one shown above. Here, their signature maple was let grow to maturity above the roof line and signage. Yes, they have leaves to clean up, but they had just as many when it was being topped in the past. Look at the grandeur the tree gives the site now.  I see, “Healthy tree, healthy bank.”… but I’m obviously opinionated, and besides, that’s our bank!  BlogShot2

So the solution is to let trees mature above the signage and provide a sense of security and comfort for patrons.  While they are maturing, and they can be thinned so that motorists can see the signage through the trees while they’re growing taller than the signs.

In reality, selective pruning, cooperating with the tree’s natural shape, is less expensive in the long run, and so much more aesthetically pleasing.  If you live in the Olympia area, take a look at the parking lot trees on Cooper Pt. Rd by Barnes and Noble and Trader Joe’s to see how previously topped trees can be pruned to restore their natural shape, contain the size and allow full view of signage.


These trees were topped for years supposedly so the signs could be read from the road…. or was it just to keep the maintenance company busy in the winter?  Nevertheless, tree size can be maintained by correct pruning by qualified arborists who know the ropes.  It took a few years but the trees look natural and the signage problem has been solved.  I like this parking lot now…I hated it during the years when the trees were being topped.

Close by, the parking lot trees below were topped for some unknown reason and have responded by growing many times more branches, hiding the signs and looking just plain ugly!  You have to wonder why?


If the cost of cutting every year were invested in periodic treatments to slow down growth, or in replacing the overgrown trees, the results would be a much healthier trees and so much more pleasing to the eye.

So much of what we see when we shop affects the way we form opinions about just about everything, including tree care.  Sadly we see way too much “malpruning” on residential sites now and it may have been influenced what we see in many parking lots…it’s very sad to say the least.  Pruning trees correctly might be slightly more costly initially, but the long term benefits far outweigh the short term savings.  Proper pruning and plant health care treatments extend the life of trees; improper cutting can lead to an early failure from storm damage or decay.

We offer very cost effective* tree growth regulator (TGR) treatments that can slow most trees down as much as 50%. The same thing goes for shrubs, shearing is not the best way to maintain them with a few exceptions, but that’s for another day.

* 5-3″ caliper trees would cost about $100 to regulate the growth.  One treatment lasts for up to 3 years. Free quotes gladly, minimums apply.

Call us for references for qualified arborists that don’t top trees.

Some interesting sites that deal with the topic;

Your thoughts?



4 replies
  1. Bryce Landrud
    Bryce Landrud says:

    Why has it been so difficult to stem this practice with ‘small’ trees out in the open, while the topping of large trees has been significantly reduced? I believe its the huge disconnect between the owners and the ones doing the cutting. Large trees tend to have residential owners, who control and communicate their wishes directly to the person they’re going to pay to do the work. Nowadays, many homeowners are smarter than the tree toppers, so they shop around for a qualified professional to do the work.

    On commercial sites, the owners are usually corporations, with a ‘point person’ who hires a property management company. This company then hires the (typically lowest) priced landscape firm to do the grounds care and, to generate more income, they’ll offer (or be asked) to ‘trim the trees’. So in this case, the owners with the big investment pay the lowest wages to the least trained workers. In most of these cases the math adds up to the worst – looking trees.

    So, as always it comes down to education – the property managers and the store managers and the landscape company owners need to know the differences (all you’ve discussed above, Neal) between the various options for their trees. Once aware of the benefits of proper care, the trees can be rehabilitated and we can groan a little less.

    Until they switch landscapers……

    • Neal
      Neal says:

      Very well said Bryce, thanks. The biggest mistakes I’ve made in life have been because I didn’t ask enough questions and get the right answers, I’m pretty sure everyone would agree. The pain of making mistakes while “living and learning” should lead us to consider everything more closely. At least we would be able to warn others not to make the same mistake. If we and apply Ronald Reagan’s, “Trust but verify…” it would surely lead to more happy endings. I have a friend who embodies a unique method when making important decisions. He studies well, makes up his mind, and then asks qualified people to talk him out of it if they can! If they can, he changes course and moves ahead. He uses the “multitude of counselors” principle from the Bible, and it works.

      So a word to the wise regarding tree issues…don’t let the price alone drive your decision who to hire. Ask for a quote from several qualified, experienced industry professionals, and check out some of their tree work to see for yourself before awarding the contract. In my experience, the long term costs of caring for trees properly has been lower, not higher. Besides if you’re a commercial property owner or manager, the buying public will enjoy the parking lot experience and spend some money.

  2. Jackie Hayes
    Jackie Hayes says:

    Neil I’m sure you noticed the three Plum Trees in our front yard when you came to check out our lawn. Frank had those trees done about a year ago by a professional. This year he went the cheap route and had a friend cut some of the branches back. Both times I tried to talk him into taking them out completely because when they are cut mostly down or trimmed the way they are now looks terrible. Who ever put those trees there in the first place should have put them closer to the lawn so when they grow they do not interfere with the overhead wires.

    • Neal
      Neal says:

      There is a saying in arborcare that sums your situation up pretty well – Right tree, right place. But, way too often trees are planted in places they outgrow, even professionals make the mistake…I have. Even the canopy size information on trees is confusing, i.e. “Grows to 25 ‘ tall, 25’ wide”. Those numbers are an estimate of the dimensions at maturity, but without pruning trees keep growing and become over-mature. When that happens there are only two choices, reduce the size or replace the tree. The last option is usually the best but is rarely chosen, so pruning is usually the option. Done properly, tree canopy size can be maintained. If maintenance pruning is done regularly, and correctly, severe size reduction may not be necessary. If severe pruning (particularly topping) or storm damage occurs, trees respond by growing more rapidly, not slower, perpetuating the need for pruning. I highly recommend hiring a trusted arborist to recommend the best course to take. We can recommend a qualified firm, just give us a call.

      Tree root systems can be a problem too, but that’s another story…

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