12 Signs You May Need to Remove a Tree

large aged tree with a split down the middle

The sickly tree in your backyard is worrying you, and rightfully so –– its unusual lean, hollow trunk or fungus growth requires immediate attention. A dreadful storm or windy afternoon could topple over this weakening tree. While some ailments can be remedied by a professional, here are 12 signs you may need to remove a tree. 

Sometimes these signs aren’t so obvious, which means you’ll need a certified arborist to diagnose your tree. If the tree requires removal, you’ll almost always need to hire a professional. DIY tree removal might be possible with healthy trees, but removing unhealthy or dying trees poses a significantly higher safety risk. 

1. The tree shows signs of damage or decay

When a tree is damaged or decaying, its structural integrity is often compromised. Keeping the tree any longer may prove unsafe, especially if the tree is near the home. 

If your tree shows the following warning signs of damage or decay, it might be time to say goodbye:

  • Vertical cracks in the trunk
  • Abnormal bark peeling 
  • Dead branch stubs
  • Visible wounds or open cavities
  • Severe damage to the trunk
  • Broken wood from a lightning strike

If your tree took a beating during a storm, it’s a good idea to have it inspected. A certified arborist can determine the extent of the damage and decide whether to remove the tree. 

2. The tree is hollow

The hollow hole in the tree’s trunk might make a fun family photo, but it’s a sign your tree is weakening or has internal decay. 

Falling tree limbs might also expose hollow cavities, which make ideal homes for owls and squirrels. So if you see some fluffy heads poking out of your tree, that’s a sign your tree may be hollow. 

Now, there’s no need to unnecessarily disturb an owl or squirrel family by cutting down their home without a second opinion. Call your local arborist to determine whether or not the tree is healthy enough to stay. 

Pro Tip: Signs of a hollow tree aren’t always visible. You can test for hollowness by tapping areas of the tree with a rubber mallet (this is called sounding a tree). This is a simple way to check the tree on your own, but it’s always wise to have a tree care expert test the tree, too, as they’re trained to detect the slightest differences in sound. 

3. The tree has dead branches

Dead branches may be a sign that your tree is suffering from a disease, pest, or other stressors. The occasional dread branch is no cause for alarm (that’s what tree pruning is for), but a tree with several dead branches may signal an underlying issue. 

If a branch shows no sign of life, it’s probably dead. Here’s how you can tell if a branch is alive

  • The bark is intact and firmly attached to the branch
  • The branch is flexible –– a dead branch will snap with ease
  • The branches have foliage and buds during the growing season
  • When you lightly scrape the branch, the layer underneath is green

Large, dead branches can prove hazardous in the landscape, as a gust of wind can easily send them crashing down. A heavy layer of snow also can snap off dead branches like a toothpick. 

Pro Tip: Keep an eye out for branches that rub together. If they rub together or intertwine, they may create open wounds that expose the tree to disease. 

4. The tree has a fungal disease

Those mushrooms growing on the base of the tree sure do look suspicious. Fungi growing on your tree is a common sign of disease. While some diseases can be treated, they can also be fatal to the infected tree or the surrounding healthy trees. 

Besides visible fungi, what are some other signs of tree disease? Let’s take a look: 

  • Wilting, falling, or discoloration of leaves or needles
  • Depressions in the wood
  • Scabs in the fruits
  • Bleeding cankers
  • Stunted growth
  • Tiny, pimple-like spore-producing structures 

5. The tree is dead or dying

If an arborist confirms your tree is dead, your only choice is to remove it. A tree care expert might be able to salvage a diseased tree, but there’s no way you can bring a dead tree back to life. 

Tell-tale signs of a dead or dying tree include: 

  • No leaves or buds during the growing season
  • The trunk has a significant lean
  • The branches are dead
  • If the tree is evergreen, it may have a thinning canopy, needle drop, or browning at the needle tips
  • The tree exhibits disease or insect symptoms

6. The tree has a significant or new lean

It’s natural for your tree to have a slight lean (one side is bound to be heavier than the other). But when it’s a dramatic lean that comprises the tree’s architecture or the tree suddenly has a lean it never had previously, then you can start to wonder about the health of your tree. 

Have an arborist inspect your tree if it’s developed a new lean or its lean appears to be uprooting the tree. The leaning tree may be decaying or suffering from storm damage. 

7. The tree is in a hazardous location

Sometimes you can have a perfectly healthy tree in the landscape, but its location is a nail-biter. If a tree is close to your home, power lines, or other structures, a tree expert may recommend its removal. The last thing any homeowner wants is a hazardous tree crashing through the roof or knocking out the power.

8. The tree has insect damage

Who knew an itty bitty bug could devastate an enormous tree? Insect infestations won’t always kill your tree, but insects like the emerald ash borer will send your tree to the grave. 

Some insects only cause damage to dead or dying trees, like the banded ash borer. So if your tree shows signs of insect damage, it may mean your tree had a preexisting issue that requires removal. 

If your tree has the following symptoms, an insect might be to blame: 

  • Large silken tents on branches
  • Round or D-shaped exit holes 
  • S-shaped or zigzagged tunnels inside the wood
  • Visible larva on the tree
  • Stunted tree growth
  • Egg masses
  • Leaf damage or defoliation

9. The tree is invasive

Invasive trees might look beautiful, but they can harm the health of your landscape by competing with native trees, suppressing biodiversity, and disrupting the ecosystem. 

Invasive trees include: 

  • Chinese tallow
  • Chinaberry trees
  • Bradford pear trees
  • White poplar
  • Mimosa (or silk) tree
  • Tree of heaven
  • Black locust 

10. The tree shows signs of root rot

A tree with root rot isn’t entirely beyond recovery. Aggressive treatment may remedy the infection, but an arborist might still suggest removal if the tree poses a safety risk.

Spotting the signs of root rot is difficult. Why? Because you can’t get a good look at the underground tree roots (unless you have x-ray vision) and root rot’s symptoms mimic the signs of other issues.

Symptoms of root rot include: 

  • Poor growth
  • Weak and decaying branches
  • Wilted or discolored leaves
  • Thinning of the canopy
  • Fungus growing up from the roots 
  • Cankers or sunken wood

11. The tree is stopping your lawn from growing

Despite your best efforts to grow grass in the shade, sometimes removing a shade tree is the only way to achieve dense, green grass. Shade-resistant grass varieties are available, but grass growing in the shade won’t grow nearly as well as grass growing in the sunlight. 

Removing a shade tree isn’t necessary if you’re satisfied with how your grass grows. But if you’re determined to have a carpeted, uniform lawn, removing a shade tree will give you the best results. 

12. The tree has a ‘Y’ or ‘V’ crotch

Trees with multiple trunks may be a safety hazard depending on the angle of their connection, known as the crotch. Typically, trunks with a U-shaped crotch have a stronger connection than trunks with a tight ‘Y’ or ‘V’ crotch. Trees with these tight-angled connections are vulnerable to snapping and may require removal. 

Should you hire a professional or DIY?

In most cases, it’s best to leave tree removal to the professionals. Attempting to remove a weak, dead, dying, or structurally compromised tree can prove deadly. If a tree grows near your home, power lines, or other obstacles, it’s also wise to call a professional. 

DIY tree removal is only possible if you’re removing a healthy, manageable-sized tree that has no nearby obstacles. You also must be confident using a chainsaw and have the appropriate permits and equipment. While DIY tree removal is an option in some situations, hiring a professional tree removal company is the safest way to remove a tree.

FAQ about removing a tree

1. How can I diagnose my tree?

An accurate diagnosis for an ailing tree should come from a certified arborist. Arborists are knowledgeable in the field of tree care and are trained to identify symptoms that might not be so obvious to an untrained observer. 

2. How can I save my diseased tree?

The best way to save a diseased tree is to perform a curative treatment as soon as possible. When you suspect your tree is suffering from a disease, call a tree service company right away to perform an inspection. An arborist may perform a curative treatment, but if the tree has become dangerously weak, they may suggest removing it. 

Keep in mind that some tree diseases don’t have a cure, and the diseased tree will need prompt removal to protect nearby trees. 

3. My neighbor says they can cut down my tree. Is it safe to hire them?

Beware of people who claim to be tree experts without the necessary qualifications — hiring an uninsured, self-proclaimed tree professional increases the risk of injury, property damage, and death. 

The highest-trained professionals are certified arborists. So unless your neighbor is an insured, certified arborist, don’t hire them for tree removal services. 

4. What can I do if my neighbor has a dangerous tree in their yard?

If your neighbor has a dangerous tree that puts you, your family, or your property at risk, a good first step is to talk to your neighbor face-to-face.

Tell your neighbor what your concerns are and why. Ask them to hire a certified arborist (or offer to pay for one yourself) to inspect the tree and follow the arborists’ recommendations for removal. For peace of mind, ask to join the inspection appointment or request the arborist’s inspection details in writing. 

If your neighbor refuses to hire an arborist, write them a letter that includes your concerns and any legal action you’ll take if the tree damages your property or injures someone. This is usually enough to get a neighbor to act promptly. Remember to save a copy of the letter (or email) for your records. 

Consult a lawyer or file a nuisance claim if a face-to-face meeting and letter don’t work. If the court believes the tree to be a nuisance, it can order your neighbor to remove the tree. 

Give your landscape expert care

While your trees get expert care, why not give your front lawn expert care, too? Removing unhealthy trees and fertilizing the grass is the health boost your landscape’s been craving. 

From mowing the turf to edging the landscape, hire a local lawn care professional who can turn your lawn from drab to fab. 

Main Photo Credit: Graham’n’Judy | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is a freelance writer and actor in New York City. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia and enjoys a warm cup of French press coffee.