At David’s Tree Service in Little Rock, one of the most common landscape issues we see is exposed surface roots. This is a normal occurrence among certain trees with shallow root systems, but in other cases, roots can pop through surface soil as a result of poor soil quality or lack of oxygen. No matter the reason, many people find exposed roots undesirable and are often looking for a way to eliminate or hide them.
Addressing exposed tree roots can be tricky, and unfortunately, there is no easy fix. There is plenty to understand about this problem, though, and arming yourself with a little knowledge will go a long way.
Why Are Roots Showing?
There are multiple reasons why roots begin to stick out of the soil:
Your tree is shallow-rooted. Several types of maples, willows, aspens, beeches, sweetgums, poplars, and pin oak trees have naturally shallow root systems that have a tendency to break through the surface of your yard.
You have old trees. Just about any old tree will grow roots that will eventually broach the surface.
Soil quality is poor. Even if your trees aren’t particularly shallow-rooted, most trees tend to have roots that grow within the first foot of soil, particularly in soils that contain a lot of clay. Roots remain near the surface because these types of soils don’t allow water to seep deeper into the soil. As they grow, and as the wind and rain erode the topsoil, roots become exposed.
Roots cannot breathe. Despite the fact that they’re usually covered, roots need oxygen to survive. In optimal conditions, soil is loose enough to allow for the transport of oxygen. When soil is compacted, however, roots are forced to the surface in order to get the oxygen they need.
What Can I Do about Surface Roots?
When exposed tree roots are causing tripping hazards or are simply unsightly, there are a couple of things you can do—and cannot do—to remedy the issue.
Do not cut exposed roots. Unless roots are causing an immediate danger to plumbing or other major issues, do not try to trim them. Remember, the goal is to work with nature, not against it. Not only does cutting roots affect its stability during storms and high winds, it also makes trees susceptible to insects and diseases. It also kills a potentially significant source of the tree’s nutrients and can kill all or part of the tree.
Provide a healthy foundation. Covering roots with a nutrient-rich base up to two inches deep can be helpful. Mix equal parts of compost with quality topsoil to cover roots. Keep the area watered and never cover with more than four inches of soil so as not to suffocate the roots. For the same reason, be sure to avoid packing the topdressing. In late summer, if desired, you can sow the soil with shade-tolerant grass seed, moss, or a hearty ground cover. Repeat the process in a year if the roots still protrude.
Mulch mulch mulch! Wood chips are one of the best ways to cover roots because they allow moisture and oxygen to permeate their surface. Just as with topdressing, do not add more than four inches of mulch, and make sure it doesn’t pool against the tree’s trunk.
Consider the right tree for the right space. Avoid the issue altogether with a little thoughtful planning. Before planting, take an inventory of how much shade you want, what your soil conditions are, and how important it will be to make sure roots don’t erupt through the soil. In many cases, exposed roots can add to the character and beauty of your landscaping projects; at other times, they are less than desirable. In the case of the latter, smaller trees like magnolias, dogwoods, and paperbark and Japanese maples are good choices. Larger trees with deep root systems like black gum, many oak trees, blue atlas cedars, and yellowwood may be better choices for larger spaces.
Ready to Plant a Tree?
While it’s good to shop for the right tree for the job, it is possible to harm the tree while trying to avoid situations in which roots could protrude. In particular, many people plant their trees too deeply in an effort to prevent exposed roots in the future. Planting a tree too deeply is not effective in preventing exposed roots and can hurt or kill the tree in the long run.
Give trees space to spread out so that roots are not competing for nutrients. If you want to plant a tree that grows to be large, be sure you give it at least six feet of space away from sidewalks, driveways, or other paved surfaces. Your local forestry department can provide all the information you need to ensure your trees are as healthy as possible, and that they do not become a hindrance to pavement, foundations, or power lines.
While exposed tree roots might be unattractive, they are often simply Mother Nature’s way of doing her job. Working with these natural processes to create a symbiotic relationship between nature and humans can enrich our lives, and the lives of our trees.