Topping off trees is unnecessary

Results are often damaging and ugly

  • Ironwood, Musclewood
Ironwood, Musclewood (Ellen Nibali, Baltimore…)
January 09, 2013|By Ellen Nibali, For The Baltimore Sun

After the recent hurricanes, I'm worried about a tree by my house. Should I get it topped so it's shorter and less prone to fall over?

Tree topping (which is like a buzz cut) is never recommended, for several reasons.

Trees are programmed through their DNA to grow to a particular height. If chopped back, they will grow tall again. Add to this that pruning stimulates growth. Consequently, whacking the top off a tree produces lots of rapidly growing suckers and unfortunately this new growth is weakly attached to the tree. Thus it's more prone to breakage. Also, the tree is disfigured and never regains its former beauty. Tree topping is notorious for cutting in the middle of branches. The wide cuts often heal poorly and diseases enter.

A better solution all around is to leave the tree alone or selectively prune branches back in a procedure called crown reduction. Contact a tree service company which has an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture who can oversee the work.

My mom's thriving gardenia is wilting, though the leaves are still green. It sits on a window sill. I'm sure it's getting winter drafts. Would the floor be warmer?

The floor may not be better. It may be cooler because heat rises. Gardenias like bright, not direct, sunlight. Try placing the gardenia on a well-lit table away from the drafty window with a steady 62- to 63-degree temperature when flower buds are forming (it flowers in summer) or between 60-75 degrees the rest of the year.

Water is key, however. Advise your mother to avoid over-watering the plant in the winter when growth slows considerably and let the top 1-2 inches of soil dry out between waterings. In other seasons, let the top half-inch of soil dry out between waterings. Gardenias also need humidity.

University of Maryland Extension's Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information. Call 800-342-2507 or send a question to the website at

Plant of the Week

Ironwood, Musclewood

Carpinus caroliniana

This is a native to cherish if you have one and nurture if you can get one. A small tree, it's the bark that makes it stand out in a forest understory. Smooth and fluted, the bark suggests a lanky flexed bicep. In winter, ironwood's 1-inch brown nutlets with flippant "wings" are also attractive. Ironwood is, as its name suggests, hard. Either single or multi-trunk, it grows about a foot a year to 20-30 feet tall in rich moist soil. It prefers acidic soil and will tolerate sun or shade sites. In summer, it rounds out the year with tidy beech-like leaves and few problems. Obtain container-grown, not transplanted, specimens. —Ellen Nibali

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