In the urban and suburban landscape, tree roots often are forced to grow between buildings or under driveways and walkways. As roots grow, they will break walls, pipes and patios, causing damage to properties. The Tree Care Industry Association offers the following tips for dealing with aggressive tree roots:
Plan before you plant
Before plant a new tree, understand how a tree could damage the property and take appropriate measures to prevent that damage, said Tchukki Andersen, Board Certified Master Arborist and staff arborist with the Tree Care Industry Association.
Woody tree roots thicken as they grow, gradually pushing shallow roots toward the surface. Since soil near the surface is best suited for root growth, most tree roots are just below the surface, putting them in conflict with man-made obstacles. Where the soil is covered by a solid driveway or patio, upward growing roots don’t experience the normal signals (increased light and air) that they are reaching the surface. As a result, they often grow against the underside of pavement and become intrusive.
“Most damage is found six feet or less from the tree, since roots become smaller and less damaging the further they are from the trunk,” said Andersen. “Keep this in mind before you plant. That small sapling could become a large shade tree with roots spreading 30 or 40 feet outward from the trunk.”
Cut roots with discretion
Some homeowners, masons and landscapers deal with intrusive roots by grinding down or removing them. This can be expensive and is very harmful to the tree. Wounding a tree’s roots creates points of entry for pathogens, leaving a tree vulnerable to disease. Cutting major roots also reduces a tree’s ability to take up nutrients and water, leaving it more susceptible to drought. Finally, cutting roots can reduce a tree’s structural support, which increases the danger the tree will topple onto your house in high winds.
Keep these cautions in mind when cutting problem tree roots:
The farther you cut from the trunk, the less threat to the tree’s health, and the less danger of creating a hazard.
Try not to cut roots greater than 2 inches in diameter.
Prune roots back to a side or sinker root (growing downward) when possible.
Roots recover better from being severed when you cut them cleanly with a saw instead of breaking them with a backhoe, and mulch and water well after root pruning.
Some better root management options include:
Installing physical root guides and barriers that redirect tree roots down and away from hardscapes with minimal impact on the tree.
Curve new hardscape features — such as a driveway or patio — around the tree roots.
Suspend hardscape features on small pilings to bridge over roots.
Right tree for your site
Andersen advises selecting trees for your landscape that will cause less damage, matching species with site conditions and — most importantly — not planting large shade trees within 12 feet of hardscapes (sidewalks, driveways). Since the health of trees in your yard is put at risk whenever root systems are cut back or damaged, anything that can be done to reduce the damage caused by tree roots will also benefit your trees.
In areas within five to seven feet of a paved area or structure, plant trees that grow to a mature height of less than 30 feet. In areas within seven to 10 feet of a paved area or structure, plant trees that grow to a mature height of less than 50 feet. Reserve trees that when mature reach higher than 50 feet for areas with at least 12 feet of clearance around the trunk; this allows adequate space for the roots. Also, before you plant check for overhead utility lines and leave adequate space for that tree to mature. For some small tree ideas, click here.