As humans, we have a lot of emotions tied up in trees. Our trees have witnessed the moments in our lives; they’ve provided shade on hot days, and cover on rainy ones. Oftentimes, we’ve grown up in tandem with a particular tree in our yard or neighborhood. There are memories attached to these living, respiring, silent sentinels—that’s why it’s naturally a difficult decision to remove one from our property. There are cases, however, where removing a tree is ultimately the kindest choice to make—not only for the other trees in proximity, but for the health and safety of your family.
One of the most common reasons why homeowners request tree removal is to minimize property damage. If a mature tree is located too close to a house, its root system can grow into the building's foundation and cause serious problems that jeopardize the home's structural integrity. Similarly, tree branches can pose a threat to a home's roof or windows in the event of serious storms—and these concerns are exacerbated if the tree is dying and becoming unstable.
Beyond these obvious practical hazards, there are many reasons why a tree may be in decline and require removal. Environmental changes, storm damage, and insect infestations are all common culprits—but when is treatment (or time) the best course of action, and when do more drastic steps need to be taken?
What to Look For
The first thing to consider are the physical signs of impending disaster. Stand back from your tree and take a good look at it: Is the trunk leaning to one side, or standing straight up? A lean of more than 15% off of vertical signals that the tree may become a fall hazard.
While you’re standing back and observing the tree, take note of the canopy and branches. Are the majority of branches healthy and putting out leaves? Or are there bare patches in the canopy; places where leaves have died back and the branch is left barren? A dying branch or two is not necessarily cause for concern—if, however, more than a quarter of the branches have died, you have a problem on your hands and should consult an arborist. If more than half of the branches are dead, the tree will likely need to be removed—especially if the dead branches seem concentrated on a single side of the crown; this is indicative of deeper damage in the trunk or root system of the tree.
Now, move closer and inspect the tree’s trunk. Are there splits or wounds in the bark? Sometimes, these gauges can heal on their own (usually if the wound’s width is less than a quarter of the circumference of the tree). A more pressing question, therefore, is the cause of the split: This type of damage is common in instances of infection, infestation, or internal rot. Left untreated, this can lead to hollowing of the tree and concerns regarding structural integrity.
Signs of Trouble
Another thing to look for on the trunk of the tree is the presence of epicormic shoots—thin, green “branches” sprouting from unusual locations, usually the middle or lower part of a tree’s trunk. Epicormic shoots are a sure sign of tree stress, even if the rest of the tree seems fine. These shoots sprout from dormant buds underneath a tree’s bark, which are triggered to grow in response to environmental changes or other stressors like improper pruning. An arborist can help determine what might have caused epicormic shoots to grow, and how to best improve the situation.
There are other physical signs to look for, including unusual fungal growth, an overabundance of insect holes, and increased woodpecker activity. Any of these should be discussed with an arborist prior to making a determination as to the tree’s fate.
It’s a good idea to inspect your trees for signs of problems in the late spring or early summer. Thunderstorms and snowfall tend to exacerbate pre-existing issues, and you’ll want to have a professional opinion and game-plan in place before branches fall.