A deciduous tree appears to be leaning in North Carolina.

Why Is My Tree Leaning? Can I Fix It?

We often get questions from our customers about leaning trees. Property owners ask why a tree is leaning, if a leaning tree is dangerous, how to prevent a tree from leaning, and how to fix a leaning tree. Keep reading for answers to those questions (and more!) about leaning trees.

FAQs About Leaning Trees

Below are some of the most common questions we receive about leaning trees.

Why do trees lean?

There are many factors that can cause a tree to lean, such as:

  • Light – Many trees naturally lean over time as they are drawn to the sun. This often occurs in urban landscapes where trees are shaded by houses or garages or are planted too close together. Trees don’t want to compete with other structures around them so they will lean away from the objects near them and grow toward sunlight. This phenomenon, called phototropism, happens gradually. As a result, the root system has time to compensate for the lean and stabilize the tree.
  • Saturated Soil – Wet or boggy soil around a tree can lead to leaning. Saturated soil can contribute to a tree’s shallow root growth; without deep anchoring roots, the tree may start to lean. Extended periods of rain can also saturate the soil, making it unstable and offering prime conditions for strong wind or storm to cause a tree to lean.
  • Unestablished Roots – Young trees have young roots that have not yet extended deep into the soil. An underdeveloped root system, coupled with poor soil, may cause the tree to lean.
  • Improper Planting – If a tree is planted too shallow or the soil is unstable this can cause instability as well; likewise, if the root ball is not planted straight, the tree will grow in crooked. Planting a tree too deep, however, can cause girdling. This is when the roots grow around the base of a tree’s trunk and encircle it, instead of growing out and down into the soil to stabilize the tree. As the roots develop, their diameter increases and they strangle the tree like a too-tight belt.
  • Wind – Steady or strong winds that regularly come from the same direction, especially when combined with unstable soil, can cause a tree to lean.
  • An Unhealthy Tree – Root rot, exposed or damaged roots, and a diseased or infested tree that’s in decline can all make a tree unstable and prone to leaning.

A tree grows at a steep angle in a residential lawn.

How do I know if my leaning tree might fall?

If a tree in your yard is leaning and you think it may fall, don’t delay in getting a professional evaluation from a certified arborist. An arborist will use professional tools to verify the soundness of your tree’s internal structure and its roots before advising you to remove a tree. If the arborist determines your tree is unstable, remove the tree as soon as possible.

To check if your tree is likely to topple over, look for these signs;

  • Super-saturated soil (usually after getting a lot of rain) – If you sink into the ground as you walk, the ground is probably unable to fully support and stabilize trees. Many trees fall over after significant rainfall and many more start to lean, putting them at high risk of being uprooted.
  • Soil that’s heaving (lifting) or cracking on one side of the tree – This is an indication that the rootball is shifting and destabilizing the tree.
  • Exposed roots (especially if you don’t remember seeing the roots before) – Whether it’s from erosion (such as after a flood) or the ground subsiding, newly exposed roots likely mean that they’re starting to pull out of the ground.
  • Multi-stemmed trees and those with long, heavy branches are also more likely to topple.

A leaning tree may not be a hazard, but without a professional inspection, you can’t be sure. The sooner your tree is inspected, the better. Remember that any tree that is within the falling range of homes, cars, utility lines, or sidewalks is considered a hazard if it’s leaning because it’s not structurally sound.

Is my tree really leaning or is it just growing at an angle?

Depending on its species, location, and exposure, a tree can lean or curve as it grows. Often this is natural and not cause for worry, but sometimes it indicates that the tree is unbalanced.

If a tree is growing in a spot where it doesn’t receive even levels of sunlight or enough sunlight overall, it will send branches up and out to wherever there is sunlight. This isn’t a problem until a tree develops unbalanced branches and growth on one side of its trunk and it becomes unstable.

Can wind make a tree lean?

Excessive wind can cause a tree to lean.

Trees are naturally flexible and resistant to wind; healthy trees usually fare okay in the types of storms we normally get in the Piedmont Triad area. But high wind events, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, can stress a tree by bending it too far in one direction. If it doesn’t break, you may find that the tree ends up leaning.

Why has my tree suddenly started leaning after a storm?

One of the most common reasons for trees to lean after a heavy storm is saturated soil. When there is so much water in the soil that it reaches its saturation point, the soil acts like a liquid and can no longer hold tree roots securely in place.

PRO TIP: If you see a tree in your garden that is suddenly leaning, call a tree professional as soon as possible to evaluate the situation and determine what can be done to help your tree.

What’s the best way to prevent wind and storm damage to trees?

To help prevent wind and storm damage to your trees, do the following:

  • Keep your trees’ crowns pruned – Proper pruning will remove broken, damaged, and brittle branches that could become dangerous during a storm. Plus, it will maintain the correct branch structure, letting flexible branches bend easily without breaking.
  • Keep your trees’ crowns balanced – A balanced crown spreads the weight of the tree’s branches so that they’re evenly supported by the anchoring roots. An evenly balanced crown is vital to a tree’s long-term growth and health.

Can a snowstorm cause a tree to lean?

Yes. The weight of heavy snow or ice trapped in a tree’s crown can be enough to destabilize it and make it lean.

Unfortunately, if a tree starts leaning because of this, not much can be done. Once the weather clears, tree professionals can examine the tree for damage and decide if it can be saved.

Keep clear of your ice and snow-covered tree (don’t stand under any suddenly leaning tree, even with a hardhat on) and call a professional.

If a tree is leaning because its root system has been damaged from the weight of snow and ice, removing the tree may be your only option. Removing a tree you cherish can be hard, but it’s important to understand that there are some types of damage that a tree cannot recover from.

Ask a professional if you’re not sure about what to do. Arborists have years of experience with a wide range of tree issues, including evaluating leaning trees.

Can I prevent a tree from leaning?

As with most tree problems, the best way to prevent your tree from leaning is regular, proper maintenance, and care. While any tree has the potential to lean and fall, a healthy tree is much less likely to than a stressed or declining one.

How to Prevent Your Tree From Leaning

A maple tree in Winston-Salem is beginning to lean due to saturated soil.

  • Water your trees properly – This means watering the tree’s roots, not its trunk. Water at a tree’s dripline, which is the outer edge of its leafy crown. Always water slowly and deeply to let the water soak down into the soil where the tree roots grow. Keeping your trees sufficiently watered not only keeps them hydrated, but it also helps trees develop a deep, stabilizing root system.
  • Keep your trees healthy with regular pruning – An arborist knows where and how to make proper pruning cuts that will keep your tree’s crown balanced, open, and natural-looking as it grows and matures. Regular pruning lets a tree care professional check the health of your trees from high up. Down on the ground, you can’t see early signs of disease or insect damage high in a tree’s crown. By the time you can see them, it can be too late to remedy the problem.
  • Plant trees in the right place – Pay attention to where you’re planting your tree. Consider its light and soil requirements, as well as proximity to other trees and buildings. If you like a particular tree species, check to make sure that its mature size, sunlight requirements, and growth habits match the spot you want to plant it in.
  • Plant your tree the right way – Make sure the root flare (the base of its trunk) is above the soil surface so it won’t encourage girdling roots.
  • Treat diseases and pests sooner rather than later – Most trees can withstand occasional damage from insects. But when an insect infestation or disease is chronic or severe, it’s best to treat it before the tree becomes stressed beyond saving.
  • Prevent girdling roots – One of the most dangerous results of planting a tree too deep is that it can develop girdling roots. A girdled tree cannot take up enough water and nutrients from the soil; over time, the tree declines and, more often than not, dies. Girdling roots also make a tree unstable. You’ll often find anchoring roots only on one side of a girdled tree, making the tree more likely to fall over during a storm.
  • Check your soil first; most trees need good drainage – Well-draining soil where water doesn’t collect is best for most trees. Some trees, such as willows or bald cypress, thrive in wet soils. But, for most trees, saturated soil prevents them from developing stable, healthy roots and a vertical trunk.

PRO TIP: Never top your trees! Tree topping is the second most common reason that trees die and a trained arborist will never do it. The short-term benefit of paying less for an untrained tree “pruner” who tops your tree will be lost when you need to pay again to prune or remove a topped tree that’s about to topple.

Can you straighten out a leaning tree?

Depending on the tree’s overall health and age, the degree to which it’s leaning, and the reason for the lean, we can sometimes get a leaning tree back upright. Or, if that’s not possible, we may be able to support it with bracing to stop it from leaning any further.

Generally, it’s easier to correct a lean on younger and recently planted trees. Often, the lean is due to improper planting or poor soil conditions. Digging up the tree and transplanting it properly in a suitable location will fix the problem. It may also be possible to expose the roots (air spading can do this without harming the roots) and then leverage the tree into an upright position. The tree is then staked in place and the soil is replaced around the roots.

For larger trees, we’ll need to use cables tethered to a strong support, such as another tree. Expect to leave the cables in place for several years and check them regularly to make sure they still have the proper tension. It takes a while for a mature tree to re-establish its root system to the point that it can hold itself upright. And, despite our best efforts, it doesn’t always work.

If the tree is leaning because it’s imbalanced due to improper pruning, corrective pruning might stop it from leaning any further.

But if the lean is due to rotting or girdled roots, if the root system has been damaged, or if the tree is already unhealthy, removal is likely to be your best option.

A large limb from a tree is leaning due to storm damage.

How do I know if a leaning tree is dangerous?

If your tree has suddenly started leaning, or if it has been slowly leaning more over time, it may be time for a professional inspection.

Here are some common signs that a leaning tree could be dangerous:

  • Large cracks in the tree’s trunk or on its major branches. Cracks can be caused by too much weight breaking wood fibers, or they can be a sign of disease and weakened wood inside the tree’s structure.
  • Peeling bark may be a sign of insect infestation or disease spreading beneath the bark layer.
  • Excessive branch loss (over 50% of branches) is a sign that your tree is declining. The tree can’t support its own growth, or it has sealed off whole branches because of internal decay. A tree that’s dropping branches is unstable and unpredictable, so keep clear of it.

Need Help with Your Leaning Tree?

The bottom line for a tree that is suddenly leaning, or that has begun to lean over time, is to get a professional inspection by a certified arborist! The Beaver Tree team has years of experience evaluating trees. If you have a question about your leaning tree, Beaver Tree is here to help. Just give us a call or use our handy online contact form!

The best way to prevent a tree from leaning is to start it off right from the beginning.