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 March 26, 2018 >Hi Inez, We would be happy to provide a quote for the expanding root issue you are dealing with. I have passed along your information to your local office, so you should be hearing from them soon. Or, if you’d prefer, you contact them at 610-265-4444 or Thanks Inez!
  • Inez Givens March 24, 2018 >Seeking a qualified professional to remove expanding tree roots. We are located in Camden County the southern area of New Jersey.
  • The Tree Doctor March 21, 2018 >Hi Scott, This is a great question. We will always advise against cutting tree roots. This could lead to your tree being severely damaged and needing to be removed completely due to failure. We have another blog article that may help you with your surface root issue. Give this blog a read and hopefully this will help you with a healthy alternative: Here if you need anything else!
  • Scott Miller March 21, 2018 >I have large roots from oak tree , laterally, in front yard ruining grass. I’d like to cut them out to save the grass...What are my options?
  • The Tree Doctor March 15, 2018 >Hi there, Rodney. Unfortunately, Davey Tree does not service your neck of the woods! Here if you have any other questions, Rodney.
  • Rodney Harris March 14, 2018 >Need a quote on some roots n answers thanks
  • Dan H February 25, 2018 >Thanks for this article--exactly what I was looking for. One quick question--you say "diameter" but describe circumference. These are very different. I'm gutta the you mean circumference because a tree with a 3' diameter is huge!
  • The Tree Doctor January 18, 2018 >Hi there, Olivia. Oh no! Unfortunately, there is no way to repair the cut surface of the root. The tree may seal off the wound as best as it can. If only one major root was cut, and the other roots are intact, the tree’s health may not be severely impacted. To ensure the tree stays healthy, keep the tree well-watered during periods of drought and apply a few layers of organic mulch. Hope this helps, Olivia!
  • olivia pendergast January 12, 2018 >HI, I actually live in Nairobi Kenya but cannot find an arborist here... We have a huge Jacaranda tree in our back years... it must be 50 years old. We are having someone build a fort around it and today he unknowingly (meaning he didn't understand) cut through a major root, probably most of it. The root is only a few feet from the tree.... WE are sick about it... Can you tell us what to do? Can we save the tree? Will it die? the root is probably 14 inches around. Can we seal it or heal it? We are devastated we might lose the tree. any advice would be great and so appreciated. Kindly, Olivia
  • The Tree Doctor October 12, 2017 >Hi, Chin. The best advice for construction and trees is to keep as far away from the trunk and main roots as possible. Numbers can get arbitrary, but the closer you get to the trunk, the more damage you will likely do. It should be noted that tree roots extend far beyond the canopy and even 10 feet. Try to minimize the excavation. You may also ask an arborist about potentially using a chemical which contains phosphorous acid which, applied before or after, may help the tree recover from the damage. Hope this helps, Chin.
Add a comment:
Related Blog Posts
  • Can I Use a Pressure Washer to Clean or Spray Trees?

    Tim said, “I’ve been noticing more people in my area using power washers to ‘clean’ their tree trunks.”

    He wanted to know if we recommended washing trees with power washers. And we often get asked if it’s okay to use a power washer to spray insecticides on trees.

    Read More
  • Is My Tree Dying or Dead? Here’s How to Tell and What You Can Do

    Bryan, a Davey blog reader from British Columbia was “concerned that some of our trees might be dying or in danger of falling on our house or other buildings,” and wanted to know some dying tree symptoms.

    A dead or dying tree is nothing to play guessing games with. Take these simple steps to check on your tree and find out just what it needs.


    Read More

Request a consultation

  • How would you like to be contacted?
*Please fill out all required fields.