tree decline - dead branches in canopy

Dieback in crown of tree. Photo: Jason Sharman, Vitalitree,

Updated: May 18, 2023

When a tree develops problems, it is frequently difficult to decide when to remove it. Many factors such as the cost of tree work and even sometimes emotional ties to the tree can come into play.

  • Dying trees that are located in natural areas and do not pose a danger to property and people can be allowed to die in place without human intervention. Dead trees (called snags) serve as places for various species of woodpeckers and other wildlife to find food and a place to nest.
  • Hazardous trees that have structural defects that could potentially cause injury to people or damage property need immediate attention. They should be evaluated by a certified arborist. This is particularly true for ash trees that have been killed by emerald ash borer. Their wood becomes very brittle due to borer feeding damage and limb breakage is a major concern. Removing these trees can be tricky, even for experienced tree professionals. In this situation, we recommend contacting a professional to have dead ash trees removed as soon as possible.

Questions to consider when deciding to take down a tree

    Is it a desirable species? 

    Undesirable trees include black locust, Siberian elm, box elder, white mulberry, poplars, callery ('Bradford') pear, Norway maple, tree of heaven, mimosa, princess tree, and willows. Characteristics that make some trees “undersirable” include: weak wood prone to frequent breakage, always dropping large quantities of debris, shallow roots that damage lawns and pavement, often infested with diseases or insects specific to the tree species or being an invasive species by prolific reseeding in the landscape.

    How healthy is the tree? 

    If 50% of the tree is damaged, it probably should be eliminated. A tree that is in decline can continue to survive for many years but will always have limited or abnormal growth and appearance. Trees that have been damaged by herbicide frequently have misshapen leaves, but frequently can recover.

    Is there trunk damage? 

    Vertical cracks, seams, dead branch stubs and large, older wounds suggest internal decay. Severe damage to the main trunk often warrants removal of the tree. If the damaged area is less than 25 percent of the circumference of the trunk, the wound could gradually heal over and no permanent injury should result.

    Is the tree hollow? 

    Because the life support tissue, the xylem and phloem, of a tree is on the outer edges of the trunk many trees will live for years with a hollow trunk. The issue is possible compromised trunk strength making the tree dangerous. A guide to help in decision making is if one-third of the interior of the tree is hollow or rotten, it probably should be removed.

    Are there large dead branches? 

    Large trees that have had their tops broken or large damaged limbs are a danger to people and property. If less than 25% of branches are damaged, the tree will probably survive. Crossed or rubbing branches should be removed. Narrow branch angles especially of the main trunk are particularly prone to splitting and should be corrected. This is best done when the tree is young. If a narrow crotch is too large to remove the two co-dominant leaders could be cabled to relieve the strain and avoid breakage. This procedure is performed by an arborist.

    Are all dead branches only on one side of the tree? 

    If so, the tree will be lopsided and potentially hazardous. Dead branches that are all on one side of a tree can be a symptom of root or trunk damage on the affected side. Such trees should be evaluated by an arborist.

    Are there sprouts coming from the base of the tree or epicormic shoots (small branches coming from the trunk)?

     These sprouts are a response to severe stress indicating that there is something wrong with the tree. This is very typical of trees that have endured recent new home construction injury, over-exposure to the sun after thinning a forest or soil compaction. Have such trees evaluated by an arborist? These are an indication that all is not well with the tree.

    Is there trunk rot or a large fungus growing near the base of the tree? 

    Not all mushrooms growing under trees are associated with root diseases, but fungi growing on the tree are an indication of internal rot and should be evaluated by an arborist.

    Has there been excavation near the tree causing root damage? 

    If 50% of the root system is damaged, it probably should be removed. Read: Damaged Tree Roots

    Is the tree leaning? 

    Leaning trees are more of a hazard than those growing vertically. A sudden lean indicates breakage or weakening of roots and the tree should probably be removed immediately. A tree leaning more than 15% from vertical probably should be removed.

    Is the tree under power lines? 

    Trees under power lines should mature at heights less than 25’. A tree that is growing into power lines will need to be thinned out. During wet weather, electricity can arc as much as ten feet to wet tree foliage and ground out causing a power failure or property damage. Removal of tree limbs anywhere near power lines is never for the homeowner to do themselves. The price of an accidental touching of the power lines or a grounding arc of deadly electrical current to a ladder, pruning tool, or a person will be devastating. Always hire a professional for these dangerous jobs.

    What is the history of the tree? 

    Some previous pruning jobs can cause problems years later. A situation that follows the old, outdated, practice of “topping” trees is the breakage of the regrowth. A change in the soil level over the root system is another cause of a gradual decline of trees. If three inches or more of soil has been piled over the root system of the tree, it will probably die. If caught early before stress symptoms develop many trees can be saved.

    Tree-Topping … The Cost is Greater Than You Think | PennState Extension

    What is the environment in which the tree lives? 

    Another important factor in a tree's possible need for removal is its environment. Trees growing on rock ledges or near a body of water frequently have shallow root systems. The removal of nearby trees is a common problem after new construction. Trees that are suddenly exposed to sunlight are severely stressed by the sudden change in exposure. Unfortunately, trees that are spared from removal during construction often die 3-5 years later. They succumb to soil compaction, grade changes and the sudden exposure to full sun after being grown in a forest.

    How much space is available for tree growth? 

    Trees in the forest grow very well close together; therefore planting shade trees in groves replicating nature is fine. In such sites, they will grow together as in nature to become one large mass. When it comes to your house, it is best not to have trees actually hanging over the roof. Generally, large trees should be at least 20 feet from your house. On the other hand, small trees, such as dogwood, may be planted as close as 6 feet from the house.

    Finally, some other considerations that can help you make a decision about the removal of a tree include:

    • Are there other nearby trees whose growth will be enhanced if the tree is removed?
    • Is the location of the tree such that it interferes with sightlines in traffic flow, stoplights, etc.?
    • Does the tree have historic or sentimental value? When a tree has historic or sentimental value, more expense is justified to salvage it. However, if a tree is losing large branches, it is likely time for it to be replaced.

    If you have questions about the health or safety of any tree, consult a certified arborist to have an onsite evaluation of the tree. 

    Additional resources

    Find a licensed tree expert | Maryland Department of Natural Resources

    Search for a certified arborist | International Society of Arboriculture

    Tree Health Assessment and Risk Management | Mississippi State University

    Author: Virginia Williams, Former UME, Home and Garden Info Center Consultant
    Revised: 1/2018 Debra Ricigliano, Certified Professional Horticulturalist, UME, Home and Garden Info Center

    Still have a question? Contact us at Ask Extension.