Trees are hardy plants, and their roots fight back against man-made limits around them. 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.
Plan Before Planting
“Before you plant a new tree in your yard, you need to understand how a tree could damage your property and take appropriate measures to prevent that damage,” advises 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.
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. Keep these cautions in mind when cutting problem tree roots:
• the farther the 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 two inches in diameter
• prune roots back to a side or sinker root (growing downward) when possible
Roots recover better from being severed when:
• cut cleanly with a saw instead of breaking them with a backhoe
• mulch and water well after root pruning
• consult a qualified arborist when cutting within a distance equal to five times the trunk diameter to the trunk
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). Anything that can be done to reduce the damage caused by tree roots will also benefit the 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.
Before planting check for overhead utility lines and leave adequate space for that tree to mature.