Help! How Do I Fix a Topped Tree?

Help! How Do I Fix a Topped Tree?

A good trim refreshes trees. Once they get a healthy cut, they can spring into a new growing season with gusto.

Though there is one infamous pruning shortcut that holds trees back from a healthy start—tree topping. When you cut the top of a tree off, you leave behind a weak tree that’s unstable and at risk of decline.

If you’ve topped your tree once, you can likely fix it. 


A Step-by-Step Guide to Fixing a Topped Tree

For the best chance of your tree surviving, consult with your local arborist about corrective pruning.

Will a topped tree grow back on its own?

Oh, yes–and quickly! Trees lose essential energy when topped. Due to this damaging energy loss, trees need to react and regain what they lost. The top of your tree may soon be covered in thin, vertical sprouts that look like twigs, called water sprouts. Water sprouts grow in quickly, right below the pruning cut, as trees attempt to recover. Soon, your tree will be just as tall as it was before. But now, it will be unstable and have an unflattering silhouette.  

Luckily, you can repair and reshape a topped tree with these 5 steps.

  1. Before pulling out the pruning tools, you’ll need a little patience. A topped tree grows multiple sprouts as it tries to restore energy. Avoid tampering with these until they’re established. You want to wait until the new sprouts grow to the original height of the tree before pruning.

  2. Scope out the canopy for dominate branches, called leaders. Leaders should be the tallest branch and free of damage such as cracks or decay.

  3. Cut weak sprouts down to the trunk. Leave shorter, stronger sprouts that look like they could catch up with the new leader. The stronger sprouts will branch out as new limbs on the leader. With that in mind, be sure the leader is central and stable, so it can successfully grow into a replacement branch.

  4. Repeat this process a few times over the next 4 to 6 years. Be sure to periodically trim the sprouts you left behind to help train them.  

  5. And presto! With time and care, your tree should branch back into its natural form.

Questions about the process? Leave them in the comment section below, and we’ll have an answer for you soon!

  • The Tree Doctor November 5, 2018 >Hi Robert, Your trees should be fine with time. Beginning with next year’s growth, a new leader will begin to develop. Your trees may show a kink in the stem where the old leader was nipped off for a few years, but it will smooth out as the stem gets larger each year. You may want to consider protecting your trees from further feeding injury. Hopefully, this helps. Best of luck to you, Robert.
  • Robert Thomson November 3, 2018 >Deer bit the top off my red cedar trees, which were onlt 42 inches tall. Will they grow ok and still look good?
  • The Tree Doctor May 30, 2018 >Hi Linda, Recovery will depend on species, size, health, environment as well as what you deem to be acceptable. I would recommend having a certified arborist come out to take a look at that tree. He or she will be able to provide you with an accurate diagnosis after inspecting the tree in person. Unfortunately, Davey Tree does not service your area. Here is a resource that will be helpful for finding a certified arborist or reputable tree service in your area: Best of luck. Here if you have any more questions, Linda.
  • Linda Cheadle May 26, 2018 >My gardener topped my trees back to 5' FROM the GROUND. He was suppose to trim the limbs on the bottom of the tree 5' from the ground. Will the trees grow back? How long? Should I trim the limbs closest to the ground. They were 4 years old. Thank you so much. Linda
  • The Tree Doctor September 11, 2017 >Hi Marilyn. Unfortunately, topping trees makes the new growth much less stable and unsightly. It can cause breakage and stunted growth. The good news, though, is it won’t kill the tree. We would recommend having a professional come look and see what your options are for possible reshaping. Hope this helps, Marilyn.
  • marilyn aurand September 9, 2017 >I had a tree guy top my 25 foot maple trees by 4-5 feet. He also topped my blue atlas cedar. I did not know that tree topping was dangerous, what should I do to save my trees? Currently, they look healthy. This is the first time for my 2 maple trees, but the 2nd time for my blue atlas cedar.
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