How to Tell if Your Tree is Dead & Your Removal Options


It’s the middle of summer, which means you’re probably spending a lot of time lounging under the shade provided by the leafy trees in your backyard. It’s the middle of summer, which means you’re probably spending a lot of time lounging under the shade provided by the leafy trees in your backyard. 

Until a sunburn on your back reminds you that not all the trees in your yard are lush.

If you’ve got a dead tree, it could cause some expensive damage to your home once winter rolls around.

When loaded with the pressure of snow, ice or wind, trees are susceptible to falling. Which means they could fall on your house, fence, shed or kids!

You’ll want to make sure you remove dead trees from your yard before they have the chance to fall.

Here are ways to tell if your tree is dead, the dangers of a dead tree, and your options for removal.

The Risk of a Dead Tree in Your Yard

When a tree falls in the forest, it might not make a sound, but when it falls in your yard it sure does! And it can do a lot of damage, too.

When a tree is dead or dying, the wood weakens because it has no nutrients or moisture in it.

A weak tree can fall down in strong winds. It’s also susceptible to falling when the ground shifts as the soil freezes and thaws in the transition from winter to spring.

A dead tree can cause damage in multiple ways:

  • Crash through your roof, doing massive damage to your home
  • Total your car
  • Take down power and other utility lines

You could find yourself liable for damage to your neighbor’s property if the tree or a branch falls on their fence, shed or house.

The biggest risk of a falling tree or branches is injury or even death. And people being killed by a falling tree limb are not as uncommon as you may think.

If someone gets hurt or killed by a dead tree on your property, you could be held responsible if it’s found you were negligent in taking care of a potentially dangerous tree.

Even if the whole tree doesn’t fall, branches can break off in heavy wind or due to the weight of snow and ice in the winter. All the more reason to take care of your dead tree this summer before the fall rolls around.

How to Tell if Your Tree is Dead

If you suspect your tree may be dead or dying, check for the following symptoms:

  • Leaf loss
  • Falling branches
  • Rotting trunk
  • Bark loss and/or brittle bark

If you see any of these symptoms, then it’s time for the scratch test.

What is the Scratch Test?

The scratch test is the simplest and easiest way to figure out if your tree is dead or alive.

Just beneath the outer layer of protective bark is the cambium layer, which will be green if the tree is alive. It’ll be dried out and brown if the tree is dead.

Remove a small portion of bark with your fingers or a knife. You don’t need to remove a lot to check the cambium layer — if your tree is alive, you don’t want to cause more damage than necessary just to check!

Make sure you do the scratch test on the trunk itself, because it’s possible that some branches can die while the tree itself is still alive. A tree may let some branches die if it’s not getting enough water, or going through extreme weather.

How to Get Rid of a Dead Tree

If your dead tree is a small tree that’s shorter than 8 feet, it doesn’t pose much of a danger to your property.

However, you may want to remove it anyway. A dead tree of any size attracts pests and can spread contagious tree diseases to other plants in your yard.

If your dead tree is shorter than 8 feet, you may be able to remove it yourself safely.

Here’s how to remove a small dead tree from your yard:

Determine how big of a hole to dig

  • For each inch of tree trunk diameter, plan on digging out 9-12 inches out from the base and 6 inches deep to make sure you dig out the entire root.
  • If the tree trunk is 4 inches wide, you should plan to dig a hole about 4 feet wide (2 feet on either side of the base of the tree) and 2 feet deep.

Water in advance

  • The day before you plan to remove the tree, water the soil around the base — it’s easier to dig in softer soil.Dig around roots
  • Using a sharp spade, dig out the edges of the hole size you calculated in Step 1.

Remove tree

  • Once you’ve cleared the space around the root ball, you should be able to get the spade underneath the root mass and free the tree from the soil.

You may find it helpful to tie up some of the lower branches of the tree with twine to give you more room to work.

Taking down a dead tree that’s larger than 8 feet can be very dangerous or even fatal if any part of it falls on you. And if there are any surrounding structures, you need to know exactly how to get the tree to fall in the right spot, which is a job for the professionals.

Choosing Your Tree Removal Professional

If you’re removing a large tree, you should hire a professional.

Follow these tips when choosing the right service for your tree:

  • Verify insurance: Ask to see workman’s compensation and liability certificates, and check that they’re current.
  • Get an estimate: A professional will give you a free estimate in advance. Don’t agree to any work without an estimate of the cost.
  • Get a contract: Especially for a bigger job, which can be expensive (up to $1,500). Ask for a contract that outlines exactly what the job will entail and the cost.
  • Don’t pay in advance: Never pay in advance for tree removal. Pay when the job is complete.
  • Ask around: Ask your neighbors and friends who they’ve used and if they’d recommend the service. You can also double check by looking at reviews on sites like Angie’s List.

What to Do with the Dead Tree

A tree removal service will haul off the wood from your downed tree, but consider instead asking them to cut it into pieces to be used for fire wood.

If you don’t have use for firewood, you can sell or give it away on community websites such as Nextdoor or Craigslist.

If you have a small tree or leftover wood to dispose of, there are places in Boulder County to take yard waste, or the cleanup professionals at GSC will haul it off for you.

How to Prevent Dead Trees

While you can’t always prevent your trees from dying, there are things you can do to extend the lives of your trees. This can be especially tricky during the dry Colorado winters.

Read up on our guidelines for keeping your trees healthy this winter >