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Invasive vs. Surface Tree Roots: Signs, Differences, Effects and How to Manage

Invasive tree roots are characterized by their aggressive growth, extending beyond their natural boundaries and potentially causing damage to structures and infrastructure. Surface tree roots, on the other hand, stay closer to the topsoil and affect lawns, pavements, and nearby plants, albeit with less potential for structural damage.

Signs of invasive tree roots include cracks in foundations, uneven walkways, and changes in nearby plant growth, while surface tree roots are identified by visible root protrusions near the ground surface and potential disruptions to lawns and pavements.

Invasive tree roots have significant effects, such as foundation cracks in buildings, uneven walkways, and changes in nearby plant growth due to competition for resources. Surface tree roots disrupt lawns and pavements, leading to uneven surfaces and potential tripping hazards, while also impacting the growth and health of nearby plants.

Managing invasive tree roots involves implementing strategies such as installing root barriers to redirect root growth, regular pruning to control root spread, or in severe cases, complete root removal. Surface tree roots are managed through proper planting practices, including adequate spacing and depth, consistent mulching to protect the roots, and selective root pruning to maintain a healthy balance between tree health and property integrity. 

What are Tree Root Systems?

Tree root systems are the extensive underground networks that provide critical functions for the health and stability of trees. At the core is the taproot, a central, vertical root that grows downward to anchor the tree firmly in the soil. Lateral roots radiate outward from the taproot, which spread 2-3 times wider than the tree’s canopy. These horizontal roots play an important role in absorbing water and nutrients from the surrounding soil. 

Branching off the lateral roots are the fine, fibrous feeder roots and microscopic root hairs responsible for the majority of a tree’s water and mineral uptake. The entire root system is adapted to the specific soil conditions, moisture levels, oxygen availability, and other environmental factors of the tree’s growing site. In this way, the root architecture develops to most effectively support the tree’s above-ground growth and overall vitality.

Beyond anchorage and sustenance, tree root systems also serve other important functions. They store carbohydrates and other reserves to help the tree survive periods of stress or defoliation. Some species even propagate new trunks from their lateral roots, a form of vegetative reproduction.

However, tree roots’ extensive reach and adaptability also lead to conflicts with the built environment. Aggressive root growth damages pavement, foundations, and underground utilities. Soil compaction from construction activities or excessive foot traffic likewise restricts root development and impairs tree health. Pests, diseases, and other stressors that target the root system are equally detrimental.

Therefore, careful consideration of a tree’s root characteristics is essential when planting or maintaining trees in landscaped settings. Selecting appropriate species, providing sufficient rooting space, and protecting roots from disturbance are all important strategies for arborists and landscape professionals. 

What is Invasive Tree Roots?

what is invasive tree roots

 Invasive tree roots refer to the aggressive, expansive growth of a tree’s underground root system that causes problems or damage to surrounding infrastructure, landscaping, or other vegetation. These invasive tree roots are characterized by their rapid outward spread, often extending well beyond the tree’s canopy, as well as their capacity for deep penetration, with some roots reaching depths of 6-8 feet or more. 

As the roots of these problematic trees expand, they wreak havoc, lifting and cracking pavement, sidewalks, foundations, and retaining walls. Their encroachment also disrupts and overwhelms the root systems of surrounding plants, depriving them of vital water and nutrients. Common culprits exhibiting this destructive root behavior include willows, poplars, elms, silver maples, and Siberian elms – fast-growing species with extensive, shallow root networks that spread aggressively.

The issues caused by invasive tree roots are both structural and aesthetic, leading to costly repairs and a general degradation of the overall landscape quality. To mitigate these problems, arborists and landscapers often employ strategies like selective species planting, root barrier installation, and regular root pruning. 

However, the best approach is proactive – proper tree selection and siting during the initial planting process to avoid future root-related conflicts within the built environment. Understanding the invasive tendencies of certain tree species’ root systems is crucial for urban foresters, municipal planners, and property owners seeking to incorporate trees in a responsible, sustainable manner.

What is Surface Tree Roots?

what are surface tree roots

Surface tree roots, also known as buttress roots or flare roots, are the exposed root structures that develop above the soil surface at the base of certain tree species. This aboveground root growth is a natural adaptation that occurs as the tree’s trunk and primary structural roots expand outwards, pushing some of the smaller lateral roots up and out of the ground. 

The exposed surface roots serve an important structural purpose, acting as buttresses that help anchor the tree more firmly in the soil. This additional support is particularly beneficial for trees growing in environments with high winds, heavy rains, or other environmental stresses that could otherwise destabilize the tree. The radial spread of these surface roots, which extend several meters from the trunk, gives the tree’s base a distinctive flared or buttressed appearance.

Surface rooting is more common in tree species adapted to conditions like high rainfall, shallow soils, or limited subsurface oxygen. In these environments, developing aboveground roots allows the trees to better access water, air, and nutrients near the soil surface. Common examples of trees prone to surface rooting include fig trees, banyan trees, cypress, many tropical hardwoods, and some oak and maple varieties.

The presence of visible, protruding surface roots at the tree’s base is often the first obvious sign of this growth pattern. Other indicators include raised, mounded soil around the trunk, cracks or upheaval in nearby pavement or foundations, and difficulties mowing or maintaining grass around the tree.

While the structural benefits of surface roots are important for the tree’s health, their aboveground expansion also causes problems. The aggressive growth of these roots lifts and damages pavement, sidewalks, retaining walls, and building foundations, leading to costly repairs. They also compete with lawn grasses and other plants for moisture and nutrients, hampering the growth of surrounding vegetation.

Additionally, extensive surface roots pose trip hazards, especially in areas with pedestrian traffic. Their presence also makes it challenging to effectively mow or maintain the landscape around the tree’s base.

To manage surface tree roots, arborists and landscapers employ various strategies. Proper tree selection during planting helps minimize issues by choosing species less prone to this growth pattern. Carefully pruning surface roots, installing physical root barriers, applying organic mulch, and maintaining adequate soil moisture levels are some techniques that help redirect or discourage their expansion. However, any interventions must be undertaken judiciously to avoid harming the overall health and stability of the tree.

Difference between Invasive and Surface Tree Roots

The key difference between invasive and surface tree roosts is that invasive tree roots exhibit rapid, deep, and destructive growth patterns that severely impact surrounding hardscapes and other plants, while surface tree roots tend to be more confined to the upper soil horizons and create mainly aesthetic and competition-related issues in landscaped settings.

differences between invasive and surface tree roots

What are the Best Practices for Managing Tree Root Issues?

The 5 top best practices for managing tree root issues include careful species selection, strategic planting placement, root barrier installation, proactive root pruning, and professional consultations. 

1. Careful Species Selection

Tree species have varying root characteristics, with some exhibiting more aggressive, deep-penetrating root systems that pose problems for infrastructure and other plantings. Therefore, it is important to research the mature size, growth rate, and root structure of potential species when choosing a tree.

2. Strategic Planting Placement

Where a tree is planted plays a significant role in managing its root growth. Trees should be situated an appropriate distance away from buildings, pavement, utilities, and other sensitive structures to allow adequate rooting space. Also, you should provide sufficient soil volume for the root system to develop without encroaching on surrounding elements is essential for long-term compatibility.

3. Root Barrier Installation

Physical root barrier systems are an effective way to redirect and contain aggressive root growth. These barriers are typically installed around the perimeter of the planting area, using durable, flexible materials like high-density polyethylene or stainless steel that withstand significant root pressure. Ensuring the barrier extends deep enough (at least 18-24 inches) and that joints overlap to create a continuous, impenetrable barrier is critical for optimal performance.

4. Proactive Root Pruning

Regular pruning of a tree’s lateral roots helps control its spread and prevent conflicts with infrastructure or other plants. Timing root pruning to coincide with periods of lower physiological activity, such as late fall or winter, minimizes stress on the tree. Using specialized equipment and techniques to cleanly cut roots without damaging the remaining root system is essential for maintaining the tree’s health and vigor.

5. Professional Consultations

Seeking guidance from arborists and landscape architects, and other relevant experts provides invaluable insights when managing tree root issues. At Atlanta Arbor, we have professionals who offer site-specific recommendations to help inform species selection, planting placement, and the development of a comprehensive root management plan. 

Our expertise ensures that appropriate strategies are implemented to tackle both current and potential future root-related problems. Contact us today to get started!

When is the best time to prune tree roots?

The best time to prune tree roots is during the dormant season, usually in late fall or early winter. Pruning roots at this time of year minimizes stress on the tree and promotes faster wound healing. For the healthiest results, it’s recommended to consult an arborist to determine the ideal root pruning schedule for the specific tree species and local climate conditions.

Can tree root issues be prevented during the planting process?

Yes, tree root issues often be prevented by taking proactive measures during the planting process. Choosing appropriate tree species, planting at the correct depth and distance from structures, and incorporating root barriers are all effective ways to mitigate future problems with invasive or surface roots. Implementing these preventative steps at the time of planting helps avoid costly damage and maintenance down the line.

Are there any DIY solutions for managing surface tree roots?

Yes, there are some DIY solutions to try for managing surface tree roots. Techniques like root cutting, soil aeration, or the application of root growth inhibitors will help address surface root issues. However, you need to research and implement these methods carefully to avoid unintended harm to the tree.

How do I identify the type of tree root system causing issues?

To identify the type of tree root system causing issues, it’s best to consult with a professional, such as an arborist or landscape expert. They will check the tree and the surrounding area to determine the root structure and growth patterns, which will inform the most appropriate management approach.

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