How To Kill A Tree Without Cutting It Down?

By Tree Expert Codey Stout
Updated On

Are you wondering how to get rid of a tree without cutting it down?

You’ve come to the right place!

In this Tree Triage guide, you’ll learn:

  • The best methods to kill trees without cutting them down.
  • Why it is a good idea to kill trees without cutting them down.
  • How to tell when a tree is dead.

And much more!

Kill A Tree Without Cutting It Down

So, if you’re looking for answers on killing trees without cutting them down, keep reading our detailed guide below to get answers to all of your questions!

3 Ways To Kill A Tree Without Cutting It Down

There are a number of reasons a homeowner would want to kill a tree on their property without cutting it down (called a snag). Some of those benefits will be addressed below.

But first, let’s walk through the three different ways to kill a tree without felling it.

1. Girdling

Girdling (also known as tree-ringing, and tree-barking) a tree is an age-old way to cleanly kill a tree without cutting it down. 

This is achieved by cutting a ring around the circumference of the tree you’d like to kill. These initial cuts can be made with a chainsaw, a limbing bowsaw, or any similar tool fit to the scale of the job.

These cuts should be made through three layers— the bark, the thin layer of green cambium, and finally, the phloem (the layer of vascular, fibrous, stringy matter just before reaching the smooth, inner wood).

Then, at approximately 8 inches— either above or below your first cut repeat the cut, running parallel to your first cut.

Now, take a hatchet, chisel, or bird-beak knife and remove the layers of bark, cambium, and phloem until you see smooth, bare wood. 

To be completely thorough, you can also take sandpaper and sand any fibers left of the phloem layer that might bridge the gap between cuts. Additionally, you can scrub them free with soap and water. The objective is to realize clean, smooth wood all around the area girdled. 

Effectively, this will cut off all nutrients to the tree above the girdling and over time, kill it.

Once a tree has been completely girdled at the tree stump, it will take about a year to completely die— with the portion of the tree above the girdling to die off first. This same technique could be applied to individual tree branches as well.

Here is an article specifically on girdling. 

2. Copper Nails (Spiking)

Driving 100% copper nails (spikes) into a tree is also a very old method of killing a tree, while leaving it standing. However, this method may take as long, if not longer than girdling. 

It’s also important to note that you do not want to drive nails in where you might later want to cut to take the tree down. Running into a copper nail or two with a chainsaw can be extremely dangerous to the operator and is usually catastrophic to the chainsaw’s chain.

If you choose to use this method, either tag the tree, make a note or drive the nails in where you wouldn’t be using a chainsaw— usually around the very base of the tree should be fine. 

Just remember, if you have future plans to either dig up the stump or have it ground out, those nails could be a future safety issue.

3. Spraying Herbicide

Poisoning or spraying trees with an herbicide is also a common option. Realize that this choice is usually toxic and if applied improperly, could affect the health of you, wildlife, domestic pets, children, surrounding trees, and possibly, even other foliage.

The most common herbicide tree killers are: 

  • Roundup (with Glyphosate)
  • Triclopyr
  • Tordon (Picloram)

Please make sure to follow all safety protocols associated with the product you choose to apply.

What Do You Do When The Tree Is Dead?

Now you have three proven methods for killing a tree while leaving it standing. However, at some point, the tree will need to come down for safety reasons.

A dead tree can be knocked over by heavy wind or could decide to fall on its own unexpectedly. This is why it’s best to fell the snag once it’s dead and harvest the wood.

Additionally, you will still have to decide what to do with the stump once the tree is down. You may decide to let it sit and rot on its own, or grind it out.

The choice is yours. However, no matter which method you choose to kill the tree, the tree will likely leave behind a live stump. 

If your stump is still alive, and of certain species, it can still send up shoots, sprouts, or suckers (new growth at a wound or the base of a cut tree) all over your yard, sometimes as far as the roots reach. 

Some examples of these species of trees are:

  • Chinese Elm
  • Ash
  • Cottonwoods

So, how do you kill tree roots

Here is one of the simplest, safest, cleanest, and cheapest ways to kill a tree stump.

  • Make sure the stump is cut as low to the ground as possible.
  • Drill holes as wide and as deep into the face of the stump toward the ground.
  • An impact drill with a very long bit is the best combination of tools for this job. A normal house drill and bit set will unlikely have sufficient power or depth of reach to be of any real value.
  • After you have 10 plus (depending on the size of the holes and stump face) holes drilled deep, pour the Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate), or rock salt into all of the holes as deep as possible. A funnel can help with this.
  • Then apply water, just enough to make sure everything is wet all the way through and certainly all the way down into the holes to engage the salt.
  • Then cover the stump face with a heavy (5mil) black plastic and seal as best as possible and let it sit.
  • Uncover the stump once a month and reapply the salt, water, and plastic cover combination as needed.

Over time, this will kill all tree roots and stop any risk of sprouting. It may take 3 to 6 months to completely kill the stump (depending of course on the size, species, season, etc.). 

Once the stump is completely dead and dried out, depending on the size, you might be able to dig up the stump yourself, or at least break it down with an ax to be pulled out in pieces. Here is another article on killing trees and stumps.

Is It A Good Idea To Kill A Tree Without Cutting It Down?

Why would you want to leave a dead tree (snag) standing after killing it?If you have unwanted trees on your property and are considering tree removal, leaving them standing is an option that has plenty of benefits — both to you and the surrounding flora and fauna.

If a tree is not cut down it can:

  • Be a habitat for wildlife
  • Foster other vegetation on your property
  • Season the snag as firewood vertically and completely (as opposed to it rotting on the ground close to moisture and ground insects)
  • The tree might be in an area where it would be too difficult to take it down now (either by the restrictions of topography or other trees nearby, that would hinder a safe felling)
  • Be a general, but planned part of a natural, forestry management vision for your property

Of course, different size trees offer different levels of benefits to your property. Whereas small trees can be easily cleared without much thought, large trees provide a greater benefit on almost every level.

At some point, homeowners will realize that safety concerns indicate that it’s time to take that old, dead tree down.

Note on Safety: It’s a good idea to tag the trees (especially, the larger trees) you’ve killed with forestry ribbons of any bright color. This will remind you (or alert anyone on your property) that you’ve killed that particular tree and it could be a standing hazard. 

Should you have many trees that are similar, these ribbons will serve to identify which might be ready to harvest (for your fireplace). This would be especially helpful in a winter landscape when all of your other trees have lost their leaves.

Here’s a great guide on keeping your trees healthy and avoiding common mistakes.

How To Tell When A Tree Is Dead

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and that goes for our trees as well. 

Generally, there are three sure-fire ways to tell if a tree is dead. Again, it’s always advised to gain the insights of one of our tree removal specialists to either give you a plan on how to save a sick tree, or what your other options are moving forward. 

1. Dead Branches and Weak Leaf Fill

Perhaps you’re seeing an over-abundance of branches on the ground and they seem quite dry and brittle. Also, when the leaves and branches of your tree(s) don’t fill back in like they used to during the spring fill — this can also be a sign of a sick or dying tree.

Remember, trees can be sick, with only one branch needing to die off, while the rest of the tree can survive. Perhaps a large limb was broken in a storm? If this is the case, be sure to reach out to our tree experts to make sure the situation is handled safely.

2. Discolorations, Lesions, and Pests

When you notice discolorations or lesions on your tree, there may be a problem with its health. The problem may be localized and the tree can be saved, or it could be a more serious issue. 

Should it be more serious, our tree experts will be able to identify the exact problem and if it threatens to spread to other trees in the area. 

Similarly, when pests like carpenter ants, beetles, and termites take over, there’s usually something drastically wrong and the tree will need immediate attention. 

If you elect to apply pesticides without any advice from our tree specialists, then make sure to follow all of the directions of applications to keep yourself, the tree, all animals and everyone else safe.


When birds like woodpeckers take to a particular tree, it’s often a sign of a sick or dying tree creating a softer than normal wood. This makes it easier for the bird to peck for food, or make a nest in the tree. 

Woodpeckers themselves have been known to inadvertently girdle a tree with their activities, in effect, killing it. So if you have healthy trees and are noticing a lot of woodpecker activity in them, it’s an issue worth taking a look at. 

The other direct issue with woodpeckers is that they are, in effect, opening a tree’s surface, actually creating wounds. This greatly increases the tree’s possibility of contracting a disease.

However, once a tree is dead and left standing, it does provide plenty of benefits to resident wildlife.


Rodents like mice, rabbits, voles, and even beavers can damage trees too. During the winter, when resources are scarce, these animals will gnaw at the bark of the tree, working toward the cambium layer, as it’s green and resource-rich.

What happens next is that they work their way all the way around a tree, in effect, girdling it. Soon the tree will die. 

An effective countermeasure to this is a wire mesh of one-eighth to one-fourth inch. This is sometimes known as hardware cloth. Make sure it’s set underground by at least a few inches and at least 30″ above ground, so the animals can neither dig below nor crawl above this barrier.

3. The Scratch Test

Take a knife, or other sharp object and scratch the face of the bark of your tree in question. Dig down a little bit. If just under the bark, the cambium layer is brown, instead of green, your tree is likely dead or dying. Of course, it’s recommended to repeat this test in a number of different places on your tree, especially if you’re still not certain.

The same general theory could be applied to branches still on the tree. Test a few twigs and see the response you get from trying to break them. Are all of the branches brittle and break easily, or are they green and generally quite bendy?

Finally, should you have any doubt at all, contact a professional. Many trees have been felled or killed unnecessarily. 

It’s not unusual for a homeowner to make the mistake about either a tree’s health, or that it’s too far gone to be saved, only later to find out the tree was fine, or at least, was able to be brought back to a healthful state.

When Should You Hire A Professional?

We suggest always working with professionals, especially if the scope of work is outside of your comfort zone, ability, or skill-set. 

Our tree professionals at Tree Triage can inspect the entirety of your property and offer insights on how to manage your trees.

This is especially true if you’re considering leaving snags standing on your property or having them removed completely.

Feel free to give us a call and see how we can help with the trees on your property, both now and in the future.

Meet Your Tree Expert

Codey Stout

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