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Will Cutting Tree Roots Kill the Tree?

The beauty of a yard full of lush green trees is unmatched, which is why so many homeowners strive for this aesthetic. But maintaining the optimal health of these trees takes a little work. Trees don’t respond kindly to the plant-and-forget method—you need to have a consistent maintenance routine to ensure their optimal health. You also need to take some measures to protect your trees from damage or harm, and this protection must extend all the way down to the roots.

So what happens when the roots are unintentionally damaged or when they interfere with structures or operations on your property and need to be cut? Will cutting tree roots kill the tree? Here’s what Mr. Tree’s expert arborists have to say:

What Are the Scenarios Where You May Have to Cut Tree Roots?

Some root systems naturally grow quite shallowly, others might remain shallow because only the surface of the soil is rich in resources. Shallow roots can pose a risk to utilities or even a home’s foundation and may need to be cut back or removed.

Worker digging to remove a stump and tree roots

If the soil has poor drainage, roots may actually come above the surface for trapping moisture and oxygen. This makes them both a tripping hazard and vulnerable to both natural and manmade dangers, such as animals, foot traffic, or lawn care machinery. Poorly planned landscaping and construction activities can also leave the roots exposed. On the other hand, well-planned work on your property could make you well aware that a tree’s roots will need to be cut.

Does Your Tree Die When You Cut the Root?

So, will cutting tree roots kill the tree? There isn’t a simple answer. It depends largely on the location of the roots and their size. If the tree roots that you are planning to cut are very large, removing them may make the tree unstable. It may also make it difficult for the tree to absorb the necessary nutrients required for its survival. As a result, such trees certainly face the risk of dying. How you cut the roots impacts the overall structure and life span of the tree as well.

So no one can guarantee that cutting the roots will not eventually kill your tree, though it may not happen immediately. That’s why experts recommend doing so only when the roots actually pose an issue such as damaging property or growing through construction areas. Cutting roots for aesthetic reasons is not recommended.

Are There Any Safe Ways to Cut the Roots Without Killing the Tree?

If cutting tree roots is absolutely necessary, be sure to remember that there is a definite science to it. You should take into account several factors before making the cut. Here are some general guidelines:


When you decide to cut the roots is extremely important. Early spring and late winter are probably the best times since most trees are dormant. As the activity levels are slow, there is minimal dehydration and damage when you prune the roots.

Age of the trees

If you have a young tree, cutting the roots is a lot safer. Such trees are yet to attain full maturity and have cells multiplying in abundance. But make sure the cut is no closer than three times the diameter away from the trunk (i.e., if a tree is one foot in diameter, don’t make any cuts closer than three feet from the trunk.

In contrast, older trees are more susceptible to damage as their functions significantly slow down with age. If you have mature tree roots, make sure to measure the trunk diameter at breast height. Then multiply it by six—any cut you make should be at least this far away (i.e., if the trunk is 3 feet in diameter, don’t make any cuts closer than 18 feet from the trunk).  Moreover, a tree that is already stressed due to infection or attacks may not respond positively to cutting off its roots.

As a rule of thumb, experts recommend avoiding pruning roots more than 2 inches.

Opt for quadrant cuts

Cutting roots should mean just that—don’t try to take off the roots completely. In fact, you should never remove more than 25 percent of the root at one go. Divide the entire root surface into four quadrants and cut only two opposite quadrants. You can cut the remaining quadrants after two to three years. Before you start, you can even mark the roots so that you don’t end up cutting too many roots unnecessarily, creating additional stress.

Take care of your tools

Just like how surgeons sterilize their instruments before making a single incision in the human body, you need to sterilize your saw or clippers before making a cut. Skipping this may increase the likelihood of your tree contracting diseases and bacterial infections due to open wounds. You can simply use a microfiber cloth with rubbing alcohol and wipe down the blade.

Brush the soil away from the root

You can either use your hands or a trowel to push the soil away from the roots. This will provide you with easy access and clean cuts. If you have shallow roots, only using your hands is recommended as a trowel may cause additional trauma.

Replace the soil

After cutting the roots, don’t forget to replace the excavated soil. The roots should be completely covered with soil, and if you’ve added a root barrier, it should be covered too. For an added boost or unhealthy soil, you can even mix soil with compost and peat and use that for covering the roots and the root barrier.

Keep an eye

Observe your tree closely once you have cut the roots. If you notice any signs of distress, such as yellowing of leave or dying branches, immediately contact an arborist. Timely intervention may help you save your tree.

Need Help Cutting the Roots? Speak to a Professional

Regardless of how many DIY tips you read about cutting trees on your own, it’s hard to match the expertise of a professional. Arborists know precisely where to cut to ensure minimal damage to your trees. Don’t forget that cutting tree roots is like cutting open a human being’s body and exposing their vital organs. So it’s best to exercise caution.

Will cutting tree roots kill a tree? Hire professionals like Mr. Tree to make sure every effort is made to keep your tree healthy. We can help you with all aspects of tree and root removal and even provide tips to care for your freshly pruned roots. Sit back, relax, and let the professionals take your stress away. Contact us to schedule an appointment.