Use these tips to help you get the job done safely, and then figure out what to do with the space afterward.

By Marie McCartan
July 31, 2020
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Large trees add so much beauty to your landscape. They can also help keep your home cooler in warm temperatures and act as a windbreak to slow down heat loss in winter. But there are times when a tree must come down, either because of old age, extensive storm damage, or weakening from diseases and pests. Removing a big tree safely is always a job for a professional, but here's how to decide if you're ready to hire one and what to consider while selecting one for the job. Then, you'll want to think about what to plant after your old tree has been cut down.

Leafless branches with missing bark are clear signs a tree has died.
Tony Schermetzler, 500px/Getty Images

How to Know When It’s Time to Cut Down a Tree

A dead or dying tree is most easy to spot during a time of year when it normally would have leaves on it. A lot of leafless limbs in summer is an obvious sign your tree is unhealthy to the point where it can't be saved; dead trees will have no leaves at all. If it's winter, you can lightly scratch a branch or snap a twig off to see if there's any green tissue. If there's no green, wait until spring to see if any new growth sprouts to figure out if the whole tree is in fact dead.

Other warning signs are wilted or brown leaves that indicate water stress, disease, or insects are killing the tree. Wet streaks or oozing sap on the bark can indicate a fatal disease or injury. Pruning off dead or diseased branches will buy you time before the whole tree has to be removed, but play it safe and tackle only the limbs you can reach from the ground. For more advanced work, hire a certified arborist to help with the diagnosis to confirm if the tree can be saved or must be removed.

Unfortunately, sometimes even healthy trees need to be removed if they are crowding or shading out other more desirable plants, or if they're too close to power and utility lines, or a sidewalk. A tree planted too near your home may send roots toward your foundation or into underground pipes, potentially causing damage. A tree that has suffered extensive damage in a wind or rain storm may also decline quickly.

A certified arborist has the training and equipment to remove large trees safely.
Dean Schoeppner

How to Hire an Arborist

Experts recommend hiring a certified arborist to remove a tree 8 inches or more in diameter around the trunk. If there are no arborists in your area, look for a forester or reputable tree service to safely remove the tree. Your local garden center, tree nursery, or university extension service can offer guidance and recommendations. According to the International Society of Arboriculture, you should be wary of individuals going door-to-door and offering bargains for performing tree work. Most reputable companies are too busy to solicit work that way. 

It’s a good idea to get three estimates. Ask for references, proof of insurance, professional certifications, and a written estimate. And as tempting as it may be, the lowest bid may not always be the best option. You should examine the credentials and the written specifications of the firms that submitted bids and determine the best combination of price for the work to be done, skill, and professionalism.

The Better Business Bureau advises that anyone you hire should obtain all permits needed for the work to be done. And don't let the work begin without a signed contract that includes start and completion dates, exact costs, and work to be done (including clean up and removal of debris). The Better Business Bureau also recommends you don’t pay a large amount up front. Stagger your payments according to work stages and don’t make the final payment until the job is satisfactorily completed. Paying by credit card provides some recourse should the job not be completed to your liking.

A tree stump can take years to break down.
Edward Gohlich

Don’t Forget the Stump

Be sure to ask your potential arborists if they have a stump grinder to get rid of the stump once the tree has been cut down. It can be more pricey to get that done later. And it can take years if you try to deal with the stump yourself because decomposition will be slow, and sometimes the tree will continue sending up sprouts from the roots that will prolong the decay process. 

Replanting in the Spot Where a Tree Has Been Removed

After a large tree has been removed, it can leave the space where it once stood feeling a little empty. But should you plant another tree in the same spot? You could, but arborists advise waiting at least a year before you do to let the soil ecology recover from the disturbance. Even if you remove the stump, a mature tree usually will leave behind an extensive, dense root system that's tough to plant in. If you can, it's better to start with a clean slate to make sure a new, young tree has enough space and nutrients to grow. And if disease killed your last tree, you definitely don't want to plant in the same area. Instead, aim for a spot at least 6-8 feet away.

If you'd like to plant a lawn over the removal spot instead, try to clear away as much of the sawdust and wood chips from the ground up stump as possible (add that to your compost bin if you have one). Then shovel on top soil and mix in a high nitrogen fertilizer. Rake the area smooth before putting down grass seed or sod and watering well.

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