Getting to the root of your tree problems

As far as trees are concerned, root damage is the source of all evil. Well, most of it anyway — chainsaws and forest fires aren’t so kind to trees either. Regardless of the worrisome signs a tree may develop, whether early fall leaf color, tip dieback, slow growth, or even some diseases and insect infestations, the problem is below ground in the majority of cases.

Contrary to popular belief, 98% of a tree's root system is in the top 18 inches of soil, and exten out well beyond the canopy in a "root plate". Image: UCDavis

Contrary to popular belief, 98% of a tree’s root system is in the top 18 inches of soil, and extends out well beyond the canopy in a “root plate”. Image: UCDavis

Part of the issue stems from a flawed understanding of tree biology. There is a lot of tree-root apocrypha floating around the public consciousness. One myth — let’s call it the Legend of the Big Taproot— maintains that trees make enormous deep taproots. While the legend allows that a few side roots may branch off, the key element is the Big Taproot.

It’s true that trees such as oaks and walnuts have a significant taproot when they’re young, but in maturity their root systems look like a pancake, not a carrot, the same as other tree species. Most of us have seen trees that have blown down, but that monster taproot has yet to be spotted. It’s no coincidence that the flat root system one sees on a windthrown tree is referred to as a root plate.

About 90% of tree roots are in the top ten inches of soil, and 98% are in the top eighteen inches. A tree’s roots extend, unless there’s an obstacle like a road or building, at least twice the length of its branches. This is a tree’s root zone, a broad, shallow, vulnerable mass of roots.

Sadly, the Big Taproot Legend has dreadful health implications. For trees, at least — who knows what it portends for our well-being. If we believe tree roots like it deep, we won’t think twice about adding soil or fill, or even paving some of the root zone.

What’s wrong with that? To survive, roots need oxygen, which they get directly from soil pores. Even though they make oxygen when they photosynthesize, trees can’t transport it through their vascular tissues that work so nicely for carrying water, sugars, and nutrients.

Soil compaction from operating vehicles or equipment within the root zone causes the same problems. In wet soil conditions, even excessive foot traffic can cause enough compaction to mash soil pores shut and exclude oxygen. In these cases, roots slowly suffocate, and the tree will eventually show symptoms of decline.

Excavating or trenching within a root zone severs some tree roots and usually compacts the rest. Sometimes root damage will kill a tree outright within a few years, but more commonly there will be a prolonged decline over five to ten years or more. Because of the time lag, secondary, opportunistic agents often get the blame.

As with relationships, where trees are concerned the problem at hand is often not the real issue. Imagine glancing out the window one day to see wood chips the size of baseballs raining down from your favorite white pine. You rush outside with your Kevlar umbrella and discover an army of Jig Sawflies, their carbide blades freshly sharpened, power-sawing their way down the trunk. As they smirk at you atop the mound of pine chips, you search the Internet for an exterminator, knowing you’ll miss sitting under the pine’s yellow foliage.

Wait a minute! Yellow foliage? How long was it like that? Maybe there’s something else going on here. A strong, happy tree will be able to respond to insect feeding by manufacturing chemicals known to scientists as Bad-Tasting Stuff to repel them (bugs, not scientists). It will endure some loss due to insect feeding, but it will be able to keep the balance in its favor.

Let’s think back on your white pine. Wasn’t that the one that you worked so hard not to hit with the backhoe when the septic went in six years ago? Or was that the one the gas company trenched near ten years ago? It doesn’t matter. Human activity compromised the root system and resulted in the demise of the tree years later. Sawflies or no, that pine was doomed.

By now you may be thinking, I could sure use another coffee, or, how do trees in those little concrete squares (tree pits) in the sidewalk survive? The difference is that they are put there as little tykes and never come to depend on a normal root system. They’ve adapted to available root space and are considered “unhappy.” Mature trees that have a large root system suddenly cut or damaged to the size of tree pits are considered “dead.”

You can preserve trees in a construction site by cordoning off the root zone at least to the tree’s drip line (branch length) with snow fence before the project begins. Keep in mind that even stockpiling material under trees causes root damage. If driving near trees is unavoidable, adding four to six inches of wood chips or gravel (two-inch or larger) to the traffic pathway will help.

A little Morris dancing near trees is OK, but not too often. Running backhoes under trees? Ungood. Photo: Adrian Pingstone, public domain

A little Morris dancing near trees is OK, but not too often. Running backhoes under trees? Ungood. Photo: Adrian Pingstone, public domain

If excavation within the root zone is unavoidable, cut roots cleanly, flush with the trench wall. If possible, lay wet burlap over the root ends until back filling is done. If over 50 percent of a tree’s root system needs to be cut, it’s probably best to remove the tree. Any significant root damage, including compaction, can lead to future instability of the tree.

To repair damage already done, act quickly — once symptoms show up years later it’s usually too late. Hire a tree care company to loosen the soil with high-pressure water or air injection. Soil injections of beneficial microbes in a solution of dilute sugars and various natural compounds have been shown to be valuable. If this isn’t in your budget, aerating on a 2-foot grid using a soil auger (1-2” diameter by 18-24” long) will help.

Don’t add soil to the root zone or create raised bed gardens around trees, and try not to drive or park within it. So long as the soil isn’t wet, Morris dancers are acceptable, but not on a regular basis, and only if they first remove their bells.

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

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1 Comment on “Getting to the root of your tree problems”

  1. stillin says:

    Excellent article, I loved it, thank you. So my question, a white pine very dead now, right out front of our front porch…did two big dogs kill it by walking around it as they had to be tied during the day when they wanted to go out? I run them all the time outside of town, but in town, busy street, they were on a tie. Would the weight of 80 lbs have killed the root system, since they were walking all around it? I had two pines,one is completely dead, one is half dead. Replacing them both and more, I love my trees as much as my dogs.

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