How to Kill a Tree: 5 Different Methods

Frilled Tree for how to kill a tree

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Trees add beauty and value to your home, but some grow and spread like weeds until you reach a point where you're ready to kill them. Other reasons to kill a tree might be an inconvenient or hazardous location; blocking a walkway or too close to your home or outbuildings. It might be impeding electric lines or internet and cable connections or even rooting into your plumbing system. The tree might be damaged or just doesn't fit in your landscape.

Digging or pulling up seedlings or saplings is one way to kill and remove young trees. You can kill large trees, too, but may need professional help with removal. Calling in a tree service is always a smart option with a large, mature tree adjacent to structures like fencing, buildings or electric wires. Here are five ways to tackle a tree removal project on your own.


Methods for killing a tree often include using a backpack, pump or hand sprayer to apply herbicides formulated for woody plants. Always follow label instructions and practice cautionary recommendations including wearing eye and skin protection.

Dig It Out

Weedy trees tend to pop up in flowerbeds, under hedges and in gardens with plants that attract pollinators and other wildlife. They produce seeds carried by birds, rodents and insects that root in and are usually easy to pull or dig out when discovered early. If the young tree is sapling size (up to 5 inches in diameter) be sure to dig out the tap root. If you run into a tough root system you can try watering to loosen the roots or cut and spot treat them with an herbicide formulated for woody plants.

Cut It Down

Trees larger than saplings can be cut down. Use a pruning saw or chain saw to begin removing branches at the bottom, working to the top of the tree until just the trunk remains. Allow clearance for the height of the tree, and cut the trunk close to ground level. A guide rope can be attached to the upper portion of the trunk to control the direction of the fall. Immediately spray the stump with herbicide to prevent sprouting and accelerate decomposition.

Cutting the tree down is ultimately the safest option in the long term. A dead tree that is still standing is hazardous to your property.

Girdle the Trunk

Girdling is the practice of removing layers of growth in rings around the circumference of the unwanted tree. This method doesn't require the use of chemical herbicides but it typically takes up to five years for the tree to die and fall.

All trees have layers of growth that serve different functions. They are the xylem or heartwood, cambium, phloem and bark. For girdling to be effective, the three outer layers should be removed down to the xylem. Use a chainsaw, axe or hatchet to cut two rings around the trunk about 6 inches apart. The cuts should be 1/2 inch to 1 1/2 inches deep depending on tree size and located beneath the lowest branches. Scrub the exposed xylem first with soapy water and then with rubbing alcohol. Alternatively, applying herbicide to the xylem will yield quicker results


Frilling, like girdling, is a method of cutting into layers of wood around the circumference of the trunk. Adjoining or overlapping cuts are angled downward with the cut material left attached at the bottom. Achieving the desired result with both frilling and girdling depends on the species and age of the tree. Frilling cuts can heal over more quickly which makes girdling the preferred method. Using an axe or hatchet, it also is time consuming and labor intensive. Without the use of herbicide, frilling is a natural, but long-term approach to killing a tree.

Basal Bark Spray

Basal bark spray is recommended for sapling sized trees with trunks no larger than 4 to 6 inches in diameter. The lower 12 to 18 inches of the trunk is sprayed with an oil-based herbicide formulated to penetrate bark and kill the tree along with any developing basal buds. Product is usually applied using a back pack unit or pressurized hand-held sprayer. Care should be taken to prevent ground saturation through run-off and overspray which can damage adjacent woody plants and tree roots. Herbicide uptake can be a slow process depending on species so a tree should not be cut down until six months after basal bark application.

  • What kills trees quickly?

    It depends quite a bit on the size and species of the tree. Seedlings and saplings can be killed by pulling, digging and herbicides. Injecting herbicide kills larger trees faster than natural methods.

  • What will naturally kill a tree?

    Repeatedly spraying a seedling with undiluted vinegar or girdling or frilling a larger tree.

  • Will bleach kill a tree?

    Bleach does not kill a tree but it can cause a stump to decompose more quickly.

  • Can you use foliar spray to kill a tree?

    Foliar spray is not particularly effective when it comes to killing trees. It's very easy to contaminate other near by trees by accident. It is better to use a hack and squirt method where you chop or cut into the bark and cambium layer, then spray triclopyr or a similar herbicide into the wound. It takes less product, is more effective, and is less likely to contaminate other trees and plants.

  • Can you kill a tree with a copper nail?

    It's possible to use copper nails to kill a tree, but it's tricky and there are better, more effective methods. You need to drive many nails all the way around the tree trunk with 1/2 inch spacing between each one. It would be so many nails that you would essentially be girdling the tree. Hammering nails into your tree opens it up to contamination from fungi, but if you are intent on killing it that might not matter much.

Article Sources
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  1. Anatomy of a Tree, USDA

  2. Controlling Undesirable Trees, Shrubs, and Vines in Your Woodland, Ohio State University

  3. Homemade Weed Control - What works well (and is safe!) and what should be avoided. Northwest Michigan Invasive Species Network