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. 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 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.
  • Chin Ma October 12, 2017 >Dear Sir, I plan to add some new living space at my 60 ft. wide backyard and need to do some level grading. There is a 16 in. high and 60 ft. wide retaining wall in my backyard that is about 11 ft. from my backyard fence. The plateau behind the retaining wall is at the same height as the retaining wall, thus the plateau is 16 in. higher than the rest of the backyard. There is a big aleppo pine tree at the plateau behind the retaining wall. The tree is about 80 ft. tall and 40 in. in diameter. For the level grading, I plan to dig the ground by 2 ft. deep for the whole backyard area which will be 60 ft. wide and at a distance 8 ft. from the retaining wall. Since the aleppo pine tree is located at 2 ft. behind the retaining wall, thus the shortest distance of digging is 10 ft. from the tree. Note that I will not dig the ground around the tree but only on one side of the tree separated by a 16 in. retaining wall. I have consulted with three arborists, two said I could do it, one said I can’t dig an area of 20 ft. wide directly in front of the tree even at a distance of 10 ft. from the tree. One arborist strongly suggested that I should ask him to coordinate with the construction contractor to excavate the ground, and he will clearly cut the roots using some special machine. Please provide me your advices, I really want to save the huge aleppo pine tree. Thank you very much and best regards, Chin Ma
  • The Tree Doctor October 4, 2017 >Hi Cynthia. We recommend using general TLC – mulch and proper watering! Depending on the size of the root, this may not even be an issue. If the root was larger than 1/3 of the diameter of the trunk, then the tree could be shocked. Either way, though, the tree should recover. If you are still fearful for the health of the tree, we recommend having a Davey Arborist inspect the tree. Hope this helps, Cynthia.
  • Cynthia Petranic October 3, 2017 >My husband was shredding tree stumps, he wanted to shred a stump that was up against a maple and he accidentally took off a large maple root very close to the base of the tree. Is there anything we can do so we won't lose the tree. It's a beautiful tree.
  • The Tree Doctor September 26, 2017 >Hi Bob! River Birch trees are generally not known to regenerate, so it should not grow any longer. Here if you have any other questions, Bob.
  • Bob Moriarty September 25, 2017 >If I have river burch tree cut down to about leaving about a two foot stump to use to plant flowers in will this kill all the roots that were growing under ground??
  • Jordan Adoni September 9, 2017 >Hey great blog We where planting new trees along my propert line and the landscaper accidently cut one tree root that was under the dirt in half that belonged to a 100 year 50ft+ pine tree is this something that can harm that tree Thank you
  • The Tree Doctor August 11, 2017 > Hi there, Clyde. If you are asking for us to come out to your property for an inspection, unfortunately, Davey Tree doesn't provide residential tree service in your neck of the woods! In the meantime, hopefully you found our blog article helpful, Clyde. Here if you have any other questions!
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