3 Ways to Kill a Tree

Composite of Maple (Acer sp.) foliage changes throughout Autumn
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Trees sometimes die all on their own without our involvement, but they also frequently die because of our actions—which can be intentional in the case of ridding ourselves of a pest tree we don't want—or accidental, such as when a beloved shade tree dies when we fail to care for it properly. 

This article will give a brief overview of how trees in our landscape are killed. Links to in-depth articles on the subject are provided if you want to learn more about particular methods.


"Murdering" a Tree Intentionally

Many a home landscaper has struggled with a tree species that invades a property and is hard to get rid of. A mulberry tree that volunteers in the garden can seem like a gift at first until its berries begin propegating dozens of volunteer offspring—each of which is very hard to get rid of. In some locations, even a normally prized tree like black walnut may become a pest. 

There are two methods for deliberately killing a tree: with and without chemical herbicides. 

Killing a Tree Without Chemicals

For many of us, getting rid of an unwanted tree without using chemicals is preferable, but it's not always easy and frequently involves very hard work. While some trees can simply be cut off and ground level, others will continue to stubbornly sprout back up from the stump. A year after you think you've killed the tree, there is again, a 15-foot-tall unwanted specimen that's returned from the dead.


With some trees, fully removing the bark around the circumference of the tree's trunk will effectively starve it to death. Completely severing the bark layers all around the tree very often will kill the tree, since these layers are what transports soil nutrients and moisture up to the living branches.


But some species are tenacious indeed, and will shoot up new growth even if you chop the tree down at ground level. With these, you will need to systematically keep looking for the new sprouts and cut them down religiously whenever they appear. Over time, some trees will lose their will to live and eventually stop trying. In terms of biology, what's actually happening here is that you are denying the roots the energy they seek from green growth in the new shoots. 

Finally, some trees seem to cling on to life no matter what, and with these, the answer is some very hard work: digging down and painstakingly removing the roots from the soil. The notorious buckthorn bush/tree is one of these types—without chemicals, the only way to rid yourself of the beast is to carefully remove all traces of the roots. 

Killing a Tree With Herbicide Chemicals

In many cases, the most efficient way to kill an unwanted tree is with a chemical herbicide specially formulated to do the job on woody plants. There are several ways to do this, ranging from spraying the foliage to coating the bark with herbicide to cutting the tree down and brushing herbicide on the raw cut edges of the bark. Herbicides can also be injected deep into the tree by professionals.


Not just any herbicide will do the trick, though. The glyphosate herbicide (sold under the name Roundup and other labels) that works fine at killing grass and other plants may be shrugged off by many trees. Products containing a chemical called Bromacil are more effective at killing woody plants, including shrubs and trees, but they must be used carefully, as the chemical will remain in the soil for a long time, making it impossible to plant other specimens. 

Involuntary Tree-Slaughter

Finally, and most tragically, is the instance in which an otherwise well-meaning homeowner accidentally kills a tree through inattention or improper care. This, alas, happens all too often with good trees  in the hands of not-so-good homeowners who are inattentive or poorly educated.

Most trees with thrive if you follow a handful of routine care steps outlined in the linked article, but ironically, sometimes it is too much care that leads to a tree's demise.

Overwatering, for example, can drown a tree's roots or cause bacterial or fungal infections that choke out a tree's ability to uptake water. Overwatering can actually cause a tree to die from thirst. 

Homeowners that apply deep mulch around a tree's base may not realize that they are encouraging moisture and pests to congregate around the trunk of the tree—the resulting problem can progress to fatal levels before you even recognize your mistake.

Over-fertilizing by homeowners has also caused many a tree to grow sickly and die. 

More often, though, it is brutal inattention that kills a tree in the landscape. Basic care for the tree—watering in drought periods, occasionally pruning out dead or broken branches, watching for rot—is a necessary part of landscape management, and failure to pay attention to these basics is usually the reason for involuntary tree-slaughter. Homeowners who don't have the time or interest to care for trees should hire a professional to inspect them every couple of years and treat any problems that appear. 

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Your Citation
Nix, Steve. "3 Ways to Kill a Tree." ThoughtCo, Jul. 26, 2017, thoughtco.com/methods-used-to-kill-a-tree-3971247. Nix, Steve. (2017, July 26). 3 Ways to Kill a Tree. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/methods-used-to-kill-a-tree-3971247 Nix, Steve. "3 Ways to Kill a Tree." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/methods-used-to-kill-a-tree-3971247 (accessed January 16, 2018).