Tree Health - Cut Large Dead Branches, Or Leave Alone?


Jul 21, 2019
First off, I'm of the opinion trees are best left alone, and are best equipped to take care of themselves. However, on my project at work, I want to deadwood the white pines(pinus strobus), and take the dead vines down. It would really make it look nice, cause it's one the main things you see coming down the driveway. It'll also give me a lot of quality time on the ropewrench+foot ascender on straight up/down work. Most of it is pretty straight forward with the routine couple inch sticks poking out here and there. Main question incoming...

There is one beefy stub though, and I'm wondering if it would be best to just leave it there. I'm eyeballing it from the ground, but I'd say it's 8"-10"dia, on perhaps a 16" stem. It might be 2.5' long starting laterally(ish) for ~1', then growing up to a broken point. Options I'm considering...

Do nothing. Let it keep its imperfect, but natural looking shape

Cut it, but leave a substantial stub to allow the tree to work with it. Maybe take off the vertical component.

Cut it at the collar, and let the tree handle it from there.

My main concern with a collar cut is it'll leave a large wound that'll be more likely to allow rot and bugs to get in. Nobody told me to do any of this. It's all at my discretion, and I want it to look nice, and not cause lasting damage. It's also some fun for me, cause that's what I'm considering my pay to be. I'm pretty certain I won't even get enough money to cover my burned up brushcutter.

Possibly useful info... Conifers don't seem to be doing great around here, particularly spruces. A lot of the white pines on this property have died and fallen over. Wikipedia says their lifespan can go into hundreds of years, and none of these are anywhere close to that. That indicates to me something is particularly attacking them, but perhaps this is the usual attrition rate :shrugs:
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  • #4
I'll try to get some next week. I didn't go into work today. It's a good idea anyway. My memory's terrible when recalling what trees look like. I'll look at something, and then I rough it it in my brain and form a plan. Get to the tree, and it doesn't look like what was in my head. I think the problem is my "rough outline" gets crafted into a particular shape and becomes "reality". For some things, that works great, but with trees, details matter. Small details can drastically change a game plan.
If you're familiar with the CODIT Model, you'll know that the dead stub has already been "separated/compartmentalized" from the rest of the tree. Insects and/or decay will remove the dead stub if it is left alone. Eventually, new growth will close the wound where the branch used to be. Cutting it off now, properly at the branch collar, will hasten this closure.
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  • #6
Here's a couple pics. I had a bit of trouble capturing it well...


That's a subordinate leader/ trunk, not a limb, from what i see.

Is there a branch collar?

Trees in nature, in intact forests can live a lot longer than on any developed site.
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  • #8
That's a subordinate leader/ trunk, not a limb, from what i see.
Yea, I'd agree with that. Didn't really know exactly what to call it. How would you handle it if you were trying to make it look nice? eg natural, not stupid, and not harmful to the tree.
Hopefully the top broke out before the whole thing died. Kinda like a natural subordination cut to encourage collar development.
Run up it and see if a collar has forms.
no collar no cut,
Start with the last.

Not harmful to the tree. What does the tree want?

To be left alone.

You aren't helping it by cutting dead wood.

Start with removing the parts You want, aside from that big thing.

Is that leader fully dead? Any live branches as a pruning point?
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  • #11
Leader's fully dead. I agree regarding dead wood. This is more for appearance purposes. For the smaller stuff, I'd say it's neutral at worst for the tree. This one is one of the better trees; no vines.

these are the ones I'm really interested in. These are the first two I'll do, but there's more...


I brought my apta and my long rope in today, but I think I'm gonna haul logs instead. It's windy and cold today, and verizon buried their lines, so I can't use that as an excuse.
Interesting question, one I have not decided on. On the one hand, leaving deadwood encourages colonization of wood decay eating insects, and also fungi. So removing the deadwood only helps the tree in the long run. But on the other hand, making an incision will Leave a raw open cut! I was always taught to free the tree from big deadwood. I personally don’t believe that callus wood can begin the process of closure unless the deadwood is gone. Having said that so where to make the cut? Just outside the branch bark collar? Perhaps even scarring it a bit (the collar) to promote even faster closure? Or to remove the branch just outside the branch bark collar at the smallest diameter leaving a smaller “hole” in the main stem. Bruce Hagan who taught arboriculture at my local junior college says to always rigorously follow the line of the branch bark collar even if that makes a much larger cut. Personally I think it’s situational. A very vigorous tree can climb up over a small stub even if you make that stub outside of the branch bark collar. But the same goes with a vigorous tree with a larger cut it can close easier. So what to do with a mature tree? That has slower ability to close off wounds?
I don’t know I’m still undecided. I think it really is dependent on species, environmental conditions, and age of the tree.
I have come across many trees where a big dead branch has a callus ring forming around the stub. In that case cutting the dead wood away outside the callus is fine. There is visible proof of the tree working to compartmentalize.
I have moved away from the formulaic action to cut ALL deadwood back to branch bark ridges or collars. Small stuff fine, but the bigger stuff over about 4"-6" I am often happy to leave a pretty long stub and mimic what a tree would actually do if left alone.
Safety considerations steer my decision making however, as often what would be ok leaving where there are no targets may not acceptable in a residential setting.
In further support of sometimes leaving stubs, in removals where the trees have natural stubs I have often found classic and complete compartmentalization right back through the branch cone to the pith origin. Even in poinciana which we often don't regard as a 'good compartmentalizer'.
In broken branches, they often flushn out in water sprouts, I leave them for a few years and watch,. If the tree naturally starts to take that branch out of commission, let it. If it shows that it wants to replace or supplement the broken bit with new growth, help it.

'Tree time' is many seasons, not our 8hr visit, sometimes hard to explain or sell.
I repeat though, safety considerations and aesthetics in the residential setting is a decision making factor.