Tree Care and Tree Removal
Using proper pruning techniques is extremely important to the long-term health and viability of trees. Always use clean, sharp tools when making cuts. Pruning is best accomplished during the tree's dormant season before new growth begins. Pruning of young trees should be aimed at establishing a healthy growth pattern for the new tree. Pruning of mature trees is best limited to removal of dead or hazardous limbs. Topping a tree is NOT proper pruning, and is not conducive to the long-term health of the tree. See below for information on why topping is bad for a tree. For more information on how to properly prune a tree, you may also visit the Virginia Department of Forestry.
"Topping" of trees is perhaps the most harmful pruning practice known. By removing a large portion of the tree's upper leaves, new problems can be created. Topped trees are more likely to suffer from stress and become vulnerable to sun damage, insects, disease and storms. If you have a tree that has grown too large, there are ways to correctly prune to reduce the tree crown without damaging the health of the tree. The rapid re-growth of shoots on a topped tree is an indication of stress and a weakened state of health. For appropriate methods to reduce the height or spread of a tree, an arborist can determine the best approach to pruning to preserve the tree's natural beauty, health and safety for the surrounding environment.
Trees and grass are healthier when they are not forced to compete with each other. Both provide benefits to the environment, but when placed next to each other can result in problems to both species. Grass at the base of a tree is often weak and thin. The shade provided by the tree is not suitable for many types of grasses. In addition, the roots of the tree, which are closer to the surface, can disrupt the growth pattern of grasses. In return, grasses take away many nutrients and much needed moisture, causing trees to weaken and produce poor growth. Trees may also be damaged by lawn equipment, causing wounds that allow disease and insects a point of entry. The best approach is generally to allow a mulched area around the perimeter of the drip line of the tree. This keeps grass from competing with the tree for vital nutrients and moisture and reduces likelihood of damage to both species.
Proper mulching helps maintain moisture in dry summer months, reduces weeds that draw away necessary nutrients, acts as an insulation against extreme heat and cold, and provides an aesthetically pleasing base for landscaping. Improper mulching, however, can be the cause of stress and decline in a tree. For instance, mulch that is too deep and piled high against the trunk of a tree may actually prevent the tree from receiving adequate amounts of oxygen and water, cause excessive moisture to be retained causing roots to rot, and may harbor insects and other pests. Mulch should generally be applied in a 2"-4" layer around the base of the tree, extending outward towards the dripline. Avoid mulching directly against the base of the tree; allow several inches between the base of the tree and the surrounding mulch. Whenever possible, use organic mulches to provide beneficial nutrients.
A healthy tree has many built-in methods of resisting normal insect and disease invasions. A tree may become stressed from physical changes in the root zone or from other environmental factors that affect the basic requirements of the tree, including light, oxygen to the roots, water and the balance of essential nutrients. A stressed tree then becomes more vulnerable and unable to sustain the needed resistance to insect and disease invasion. Identifying causes of tree stress and mitigating them early can help a tree to resist or fight harmful agents. A certified tree professional can identify causes of stress and make recommendations to mitigate the stressful situation, and detail any treatments. For more information on identifying common insect and disease symptoms in trees visit the Virginia Department of Forestry.
In general, there are no laws or regulations in Virginia that prohibit you from removing individual trees on your own property. Some specific regulations, however, might impact your property:
- If your property is a part of a homeowners association, restrictions on the removal of vegetation may apply. Contact your homeowners association, if applicable, to determine whether restrictions apply.
- Harvesting of timber on your property is regulated by the Virginia Department of Forestry.
- Any land disturbing activity, such as removing trees and stumps, on more than 2,500 square feet of your property requires a permit from Fairfax County.
- There may be restrictions for the removal of trees used to meet certain Zoning Ordinance requirements such as transitional screening or parking lot landscaping.
- There may be environmental restrictions on your property.
In Fairfax County, some areas on private property may be designated as Resource Protection Areas (RPA) or conservation easements. In general, you are permitted to remove trees that are dead, dying or diseased in these areas, provided you remove them by hand and replace them with similar vegetation. In these situations, contact the Customer & Technical Support Center at 703‑222‑0801 (Option 1), TTY 711. A County representative will evaluate the tree(s) and determine whether the criteria for removal is met, and then provide recommendations for replacement.
- If you want to remove a healthy tree(s) from a conservation easement, you would need to be sure of the restrictions specific to your conservation easement. This information should be available in your property records.
- Removing healthy vegetation in the RPA should follow the process noted above. The Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance provides information about tree removal restrictions in these areas.
To find out if there is a RPA on your property, use the Fairfax County Digital Map Viewer and select the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area map series.
If you believe that your neighbor is removing trees or disturbing land illegally, visit the Reporting Land Development Concerns page for information on how to report such activities.
There are many tree removal contractors and arborists working in our area. An arborist is a specialist in the care of trees. A certified arborist is an experienced professional who has passed an extensive industry-approved examination covering all aspects of tree care. Certified arborists must continue their education to maintain their certification, so they are more likely to be up to date on the latest arboricultural standards and techniques. Keep in mind that good arborists will only perform accepted arboricultural practices. For instance, topping trees is not an industry accepted practice and you should be wary of any arborist who advertises such services.
The condition of your trees can have a significant affect on the value and safety of your property. Therefore, it is in your best interest to be an informed consumer when seeking the services of an arborist. Find out how to hire an arborist.
For more information, contact the Fairfax County Urban Forest Management Division at 703-324-1770, TTY 711, or by email.