Removing Tree Roots Above Ground: Will It Harm or Kill the Tree?

Removing Tree Roots Above Ground: Will It Harm or Kill the Tree?

Roots stretch far and wide to give our trees a stable foundation. But what happens if they grow a little further than we’d like?

One of our readers, Paul, recently asked, “How can I get rid of the roots from my tree that have grown into my front yard and are killing the grass?”

Dealing with roots can be tricky—an improper cut could affect the tree’s water flow or cause it to fall in a storm. That’s why it’s important to take a safe approach.

Read on to learn if you can prune above-ground tree roots, how many tree roots you can cut at once and how to safely prune tree roots at the best time.  

Cutting Tree Roots Above Ground – Everything You Need to Know

If I cut a root, will the tree die?

It all depends on the size and location of the tree root.

As a guideline, avoid pruning roots more than 2 inches wide. Removing large tree roots can make the tree unstable or unhealthy later on. If large roots are removed, the tree may not be able to get enough nutrients and water. Also, don’t remove roots close or fused to the trunk since these are critical to the tree’s structure.

What’s the best time of year to cut tree roots?

If you choose to cut or remove tree roots, winter and early spring are the best time of year to do so.

How many tree roots can I cut?

Never remove more than 20 percent of above-ground tree roots at once. Then, wait two to three years to make sure your tree fully recovers. Only then can you safely consider cutting more tree roots.

How can I cut tree roots without killing the tree?

Again, if you cut tree roots, there is never a guarantee that it won’t hurt or eventually kill the tree. We only recommend removing tree roots when they are damaging or infringing on a nearby structure – not for aesthetic reasons.

For the best chance of your tree surviving, consult with your local arborist before removing tree roots. Or see if your arborist can prune the roots for you.

For DIY root cutting, use this step-by-step guide.

1.) Find the root posing an issue and trace it back to the base of your tree. If it turns out to be part of a large root, ask your arborist before pruning or cutting. For a smaller root, move to step 2.

2.) Measure the diameter of your tree. Wrap a measuring tape around the tree, four feet from the tree’s base. Then, divide that number by 3.14. Generally, you can safely prune roots that are 3-5 times the diameter away from your tree. So, if your tree has a diameter of 3 feet, only cut tree roots 9-15 feet away from the tree.

3.) Mark the area you’ll cut, and dig a hole all the way around the root until it is completely exposed.

4.) Use a root saw to prune the tree. Carefully pull the root up and away from the tree until it comes out. Be sure to refill the hole with soil from the same area afterward.

5.) Keep an eye on your tree for a few weeks after pruning. Signs of decline like yellow leaves or branch death call for an arborist’s immediate attention.

 Have questions about whether it’s safe to remove tree roots in your yard? Comment below, and we’ll help!

  • The Tree Doctor September 19, 2018 > Hi Phil, I would recommend having a certified arborist come out and inspect the tree and the roots. They will be able to give you an accurate assessment and advise you on how best to proceed. Unfortunately, Davey Tree does not service your area. Here is a resource that can help you with hiring a certified arborist in your area: Hopefully, this helps. Best of luck to you, Phil.
  • Phil Dragonetti September 17, 2018 >Big oak tree ( 25 feet high--- diameter of about 30 feet) is lifting a paver sidewalk on one side about 5 feet from the trunk. Roots going toward an in-ground pool deck about 10 feet away. Can I cut the roots back on one said only where the roots go under the sidewalk?---and where the roots are going under the pool deck?
  • The Tree Doctor September 11, 2018 >Hi Kapil, You can use a chainsaw, but the chain and likely the bar will be destroyed by the soil covering the roots. Depends if you are willing to suffer that cost. A less expensive method would be to use a reciprocating saw with a bunch of blades. The soil will once again make short work of the blades, but they are less expensive. Having a generator handy to provide power to a wired tool would be most efficient because the rechargeable tools will use up battery power quickly under this application. A hand saw would be the last option, but will take a lot of elbow grease and blades will need to be replaced fairly quickly. One thing to keep in mind is there is always a risk to the tree when cutting roots. I would recommend reading this blog post here before you make any cuts: Your safest option is to have a certified arborist come out and give their opinion. Hopefully, this was helpful to you. Best of luck!
  • The Tree Doctor August 8, 2018 >Hi Esther, When it comes to cutting tree roots, it is always best to have a certified arborist inspect the area you are looking to cut. If you forgo having an arborist inspect the tree and decide to trim the roots yourself, use the “For DIY root cutting, use this step-by-step guide” section of this article to assist you. Best of luck to you, Esther.
  • Esther Checkanow August 7, 2018 >I have a brick wall about two feet from my maple tree and about 1 foot high. The brick was pushed by the roots of the tree. I would like to redo the wall. Can I trim the roots a bit to help so that the roots will not move the wall so quickly? Thank you
  • the Tree Doctor July 16, 2018 >Hi Colleen, As a general rule, avoid pruning roots that more than 2 inches wide. Even then, it is never a guarantee that this will not harm your tree in some way. If you cannot use an alternative method to deal with the roots, such as mulching, follow the DIY instructions for root cutting in this article. Another option, which is the safest, is to have a certified arborist come out and inspect the tree and roots and give you their opinion. Hopefully, this helps. Best of luck to you Colleen.
  • Colleen Salvia July 15, 2018 >Roots from my maple tree are coming out of ground can I cut them or will it kill the tree??
  • Colleen Salvia July 15, 2018 >Roots from my maple tree are coming out of ground can I cut them or will it kill the tree??
  • The Tree Doctor June 5, 2018 >Hi Karen, Cutting tree roots has the potential to cause severe injury to the tree, but there are many factors that can potentially affect the results. Here is a reference to a University of Florida extension publication addressing this issue: I recommend you contact a certified arborist in your area. He or she can look at your tree and provide an accurate diagnosis and management options. Unfortunately, Davey Tree does not service your area based on the zip code provided. Here is a resource that may help you in your search for a certified arborist: Best of luck to you!
  • Karen Anderson June 4, 2018 >I have two austree trees planted in my backyard. Ive pulled the grass 18” around the base to add river rock and brick for a bourder so the grass doesn’t grow into the rocks. Ive got maybe 4 inch size or a little bigger roots at the surface that make the bricks sit high. Is it safe to cut them? The trees are about 19+ feet tall and are 2 years old and really healthy. Thank you for your time. Karen
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