By: Nikki Tilley, Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden
If you’ve ever noticed a tree with above ground roots and wondered what to do about it, then you’re not alone. Surface tree roots are more common than one might think but are generally not a major cause for alarm.
There are several reasons for surface tree roots. Some species, like maples, are simply more prone to this than others. Older trees showing roots is common too. However, this most often happens when there’s little topsoil in the area. This can occur over some time or as a result of poor planting practices.
A tree’s feeder roots are normally found within the uppermost portion of the ground, about 8 to 12 inches (20-31 cm.), while those responsible for anchoring and supporting the tree run much deeper. These shallow feeder root systems make the tree more susceptible to falling over from strong winds. As the tree grows, so do the feeder roots. This is why some of the older trees you see have exposed roots. Feeder roots are also commonly seen along the tree’s drip line, spreading out in various directions from the base. Anchoring roots will be more concentrated towards the base itself.
So what can you do for a tree with roots showing? Once you see exposed tree roots, there’s usually little you can do about it. While some people may choose a root barrier of some kind, such as fabric or plastic, this is only a short-term fix that may or may not even be successful. Eventually, time will have its way and the roots will return via cracks or other nooks and crannies within the barrier material. It’s not advisable to try and prune or cut away any of these roots, as this will likely damage the tree itself. This should only be done as a last resort, such as when the roots are causing damage to nearby structures or others areas.
Adding topsoil to the exposed root area and overplanting with grass may help some, but this too might be short term. As the tree grows, so will the roots. It’s only a matter of time before they resurface. No to mention that too much soil placed on the roots can harm the roots and therefore the tree.
Instead, rather than adding soil and planting grass in this area, you may instead want to consider overplanting with some type of ground cover, such as monkey grass. This will at least hide any exposed tree roots as well as minimize lawn maintenance.
While surface tree roots may be unsightly, they rarely pose a threat to the tree or the homeowner. If planted rather closely to the home or other structure, however, especially if it’s leaning that way, you may want to consider having the tree removed to prevent any damage should the tree blow over.
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We love seeing our trees grow tall and wide, but their sprawling roots are harder to adore. Often unsightly, they can also be an obstacle and make lawn care a hassle.
In short, above-ground tree roots are a pain. Chances are you’ve thought about removing the roots altogether. Bad news, though. Pruning these roots often makes the tree unstable or unhealthy–and if done wrong, can kill the tree. So now what? Instead of cutting exposed tree roots, try covering them.
Browse this list to find the perfect way to cover your tree roots above ground.
Q: We have an opossum that comes into our yard every evening around 9 p.m. Is there any way we can get rid of him? Not sure where he goes afterward. He is eating the grass and then disappears.
A: Opossums will usually eat fallen fruit, garbage and pet food. They also snack on ticks, bird eggs, mice, rats, small birds, lizards and frogs. They are truly omnivorous. Bunnies are more particular about what they will eat, but they can destroy a lawn in a few nights.
If your grass is being eaten down to dirt, you most likely have a bunny problem. About an hour after nightfall, go outside with a flashlight and you may be surprised at how many rabbits you’ll find. If you smell skunk, quickly and discreetly turn around and go back inside.
The opossum may be eating critters that live in your grass. Their teeth are sharp and pointed, so they are not adapted to grazing. If you are concerned about the opossum, make sure to remove any available food sources that may be attracting him. Bring pet food inside after dark and pick up any fallen fruit if you have fruit trees. If he’s causing a lot of damage, an electric fence may keep him out.
Trapping and relocating wildlife is illegal in California, so you will have to figure out how to make your yard less attractive to him.
As for his itinerary after he leaves your property, I can’t answer that question.
Looking for more gardening tips? Here’s how to contact the Master Gardener program in your area.
Los Angeles County
San Bernardino County
Spring bulbs work well planted in masses under deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the fall. The flowers enjoy sunlight in the spring before the tree completely leafs out, and they're finished blooming by the time the tree's leaves begin to block the sun. Bulbs also have an advantage over annuals you have to plant each year because they limit the amount of disturbance to the roots of the tree. A layer of mulch can stay in place over the bulbs to cover the ground when the bulbs aren't in bloom.
Exposed tree roots may look cool in photos, but they are also trip hazards, can make mowing difficult, and can become an eyesore.
If roots begin growing on the surface of the soil, the tree can start to suffer. They might be scalded by the sun, trampled by foot traffic, and have trouble retaining moisture.
Erosion: Rain, stormwater runoff, and wind can erode the soil around the tree, leaving the roots exposed. This is especially common when trees are planted on hills or slopes.
Lack Of Space: Trees in confined spaces might not have enough space for their roots. When roots encounter obstacles, they end up growing closer to the surface and can even begin to crack pavements and sidewalks.
Maple trees fast-growing shade trees are susceptible to surface roots. If you are planting one of these trees, make sure that the soil won’t erode and there is enough space for their roots.
Over time, trees will naturally become more likely to have exposed roots.
The best way to fix exposed tree roots is to create a mulch bed around the tree. This will not only cover the roots, but it will also provide a multitude of benefits for the tree.
Covering surface roots with mulch will:
How To Mulch Around Your Tree:
1 inch thick as it will absorb more water.
Covering Them With Top Soil: When you add layers of soil on top of exposed roots, you risk adding too much or packing the soil too tightly. This can stop roots from getting the water and oxygen they need. The roots also risk growing right through the topsoil. Plus, if your roots were exposed by erosion, the new topsoil you add will just be eroded again in a year or two.
Planting A Garden Over Them: Many homeowners are tempted to plant a garden on top of the exposed tree roots. This is a bad idea. When you plant flowers or shrubs underneath a tree, you force your tree to compete with new plants for water and nutrients. This typically ends in plant death.
Solve your exposed root issues the right way. By choosing to mulch, you will not only solve your current issue of exposed tree roots, but you will also improve the overall health of your tree.
When you’re dealing with above-ground roots, protecting your tree from damage should be a top priority.
Exposed tree roots in and of themselves don’t mean your tree’s in trouble. It’s quite the opposite, in fact—trees with surface roots are alive and well. We often think that tree roots are burrowed deep into the soil, and yes, they can stretch far underground. But some tree roots are shallower than we think, sitting just 10 inches or less below the soil. It’s not uncommon for these shallow roots to pop up above ground as the tree grows over time.
The real risk comes from surface roots being damaged by lawn mowers or other machinery. When exposed roots are wounded, the tree is more vulnerable to a disease or insect infestation. Plus, the healing process can take quite a long time, and trees need extra care to regain their strength.
When tree roots surface, the look and feel of your landscape can change.
For starters, mowing the lawn when you’ve got exposed roots can feel like navigating a maze. It’s crucial to avoid rolling over roots with your mower, so it might be tough to give your grass a uniform look.
Also, outdoor spaces could be compromised. You wouldn’t want to set up a seating or play area near exposed roots because they’re a tripping hazard.
And to some homeowners, surface roots just don’t look good. Luckily there are a number of ways you can cover above-ground roots to keep your yard appealing and your tree protected.
If you don’t like the look of surface roots, cover ‘em up! Low maintenance, shade-loving ground cover plants will both camouflage the roots and add charm. Plants like periwinkle, Japanese spurge, Asiatic jasmine and wild ginger are all great options.
Also, protecting above-ground roots with mulch has dual benefits—you can shield the roots from damage and conserve moisture in the soil at the same time.