Are Leaning Trees Dangerous? Assessing the Safety of Your Trees

Last Updated:  September 20, 2023
A leaning pine tree near a Georgia river.

One of the questions we are always answering when we give assessments and estimates is whether or not a particular leaning tree (or a group of leaning trees) is dangerous or safe. Though there’s no one-size-fits-all all answer, we hope to provide you with some guidance:

A tree is considered dangerous if it’s leaning 15 degrees or more, or if you notice that it’s angle of lean is increasing over time. This is especially true if there are dead or diseased portions of the tree. At this point, the tree should be removed from the property to mitigate potential safety hazards.

In this article, we’ll discuss the potential reasons your tree is leaning, and recommend a plan of action if you’ve got a leaning tree that is concerning.

How much lean is acceptable?

The general rule of thumb, we recommend that you take action on any tree that is leaning 15 degrees or more. At that point, the amount of pressure placed on the lower trunk is immense, and a simple storm or hard wind could potentially cause it to fall or split.

This is especially true for us here in Georgia, where thunderstorms can be frequent during certain times of the year.

This is simple to measure by using a plumb line and assessing the angle between the vertical line and the tree’s trunk.

Additionally, if you notice that your tree is leaning more over time, it may be appropriate to remove the tree even if it hasn’t approached 15 degrees yet.

If you’ve got leaning trees less than 15 degrees, we recommend measuring the angle of the lean and monitoring the angle over time. If the tree starts to lean further, you should call a professional tree removal service to take care of the tree before disaster strikes.

Why trees lean

There are man reasons why trees may start to lean, and we'll cover a few of them here briefly. Leaning trees, also known as tilted or slanted trees, are trees that do not grow vertically but instead exhibit a noticeable lean. This lean can be caused by a variety of factors, including:

1. Phototropism (growing towards sunlight)

One of the most common reasons trees lean is a phenomenon known as phototropism. This is when trees grow towards sunlight, and it can be especially pronounced in areas where a tree’s access to light isn’t optimal (such as if there’s other trees densely crowding that tree’s space).

2. Regular exposure to high winds

Additionally, strong and persistent winds can gradually push a tree off balance, causing it to lean in the direction of the prevailing wind. Often, this is because the wind causes the soil to erode, exposing the tree’s roots, which compromises the integrity of the tree’s structure.

This is especially true if the tree has shallow roots.

3. Soil erosion due to water

Trees planted in areas with unstable or eroding soil may develop a lean as the ground beneath them shifts or washes away. A common reason for this is that the soil is wet or consistently exposed to water.

We notice this phenomenon frequently in the areas around Lake Lanier, where large trees near the lake are exposed to water.

4. Root or structure issues

Damage to a tree's root system or trunk, such as disease, root rot, or physical injury to the tree, can weaken its anchoring ability, leading to a noticeable lean.

If you’re interested in reading further, we covered root issues in our article on the warning signs of a falling tree.

Are Leaning Trees Dangerous?

Not all leaning trees are dangerous, but some pose a significant threat. A tree falling in your yard can cause significant damage or injury. The answer to whether leaning trees are dangerous depends on several factors:

1. Severity of Lean

As we’ve already discussed, the degree of a tree's lean is a crucial factor in assessing its danger level. A slight lean may be nothing more than a natural growth pattern and might not pose a significant risk.

However, a tree with a severe tilt, especially one approaching a 15-degree angle or more, is cause for concern. Such trees have an increased likelihood of falling, especially during storms or strong winds. The greater the tilt, the higher the risk it presents.

2. Proximity to Structures

Another important factor to consider is how close the leaning tree is to structures like your home, garage, or power lines.

Let’s face it – there are much higher potential consequences for a tree leaning over a driveway or structure than a tree leaning in a dense forest.

If a leaning tree is directly over or near a building, driveway, or high-traffic area, the potential for property damage or injury in case of a fall is considerably higher.

For this reason, we recommend that you err on the side of caution with high-consequence trees such as these.

3. Health of the Tree

A leaning tree's overall health is another thing to consider when assessing a tree’s lean. Healthy trees that are leaning a little bit are far less likely to fall than diseased or rotting trees that are leaning.

If you tree isn’t healthy, we recommend that you call a professional tree service far earlier to get an assessment of the tree’s risk. The professional can give you an opinion on whether or not to revive the dying tree or remove it.

If you've got a tree with a lot of damage or brittle branches, we recommend reading our full guide on determining if a tree is dead before proceeding.

Weakness in the tree's trunk or root system can compromise its stability, making it susceptible to toppling over. Regularly inspect your trees for signs of poor health, such as discolored leaves, dead branches, or oozing sap.

4. Species of Tree

Not all tree species respond to leaning in the same way. Some trees, like the iconic Pisa pine, naturally exhibit a leaning growth habit. This inclination is part of their genetic makeup and doesn't necessarily indicate a safety issue.

When evaluating the danger of a leaning tree, it's crucial to consider whether its species typically exhibit a vertical or leaning growth pattern. Familiarity with the species' habits can help you better judge the tree's safety.

What to do if your leaning trees are dangerous

If you’ve determined that you’ve got a tree that is a cause for concern (or if you’re unsure if it's time to remove a tree), we recommend taking the following action steps:

1. Consult a professional

Seeking the advice of a certified arborist is a prudent step in assessing the safety of leaning trees. Though you could remove the leaning tree on your own (depending on the size), arborists and tree service professionals possess specialized knowledge about tree health, stability, and risk assessment.

They can conduct a thorough evaluation of your leaning trees, considering factors such as the tree's lean angle, overall condition, and the presence of any underlying issues. Their expertise enables them to provide expert guidance on whether the tree requires attention or can be managed safely.

2. Prune dead or diseased branches

Depending on the size and height of the branches, you may be able to prune or remove some of them on your own. Though it’s ill-advised to try and climb a very tall tree by yourself, it may be possible if the tree is less than 15-20 feet high and you’re able to use a free-standing ladder.

Regular tree care and maintenance, including knowing when during the year to trim your trees, including the careful pruning of dead or diseased branches, plays a crucial role in mitigating potential risks associated with leaning trees.

Trimming away unhealthy branches not only reduces the tree's weight but also improves its structural integrity. This proactive measure helps prevent the possibility of branch failure, which can exacerbate the tree's lean and pose dangers.

3. Install support systems

In certain cases, installing support systems like cabling or bracing can help stabilize leaning trees. These systems provide additional structural support to the tree, reducing the risk of toppling over.

In some cases, installing support systems can even correct the lean.

However, it's important to note that support systems should only be installed by qualified professionals who can assess the tree's specific needs and implement the appropriate measures.

4. If you don’t remove the tree, monitor it regularly

Keeping a vigilant eye on your leaning trees is an effective way to ensure ongoing safety. Regular monitoring, especially during adverse weather conditions or after storms, allows you to detect any changes in the tree's condition promptly.

It would also be advisable at this point to get a quote for tree removal to determine the cost of removing the tree for future reference.

If you notice any significant shifts in the tree's lean, the appearance of new issues, or changes in its health, take swift action by consulting an arborist for a comprehensive evaluation.

Are my leaning trees safe?

If you're not sure, consult a professional in the tree industry. We see these kinds of things all the time, and we're available to provide a free assessment if you simply need someone to take a look. If you're anywhere near North Georgia, give us a call. We'd be happy to provide you with guidance to keep your trees and your property beautiful for years to come!

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