Tree Roots

A few things you might not know about roots

Roots can drown?

Common thinking is that tree roots can live without air since they are already underground. However, 25-percent of a soil's volume is actually air, 25-percent water, and 50-percent solid. Roots need this air space for "breathing." Burying existing root systems with extra soil can suffocate them. Some species of trees are very sensitive to having any soil fill placed of their root system. Don't risk damaging your trees with soil fill -- haul away extra soil instead of spreading it beneath existing trees!

Tree roots
Surface-rooted Maple tree

How deep are tree roots?

Roots on most trees are in the top 18 to 24 inches of the soil, not nearly as deep as everyone thinks. Severing roots with trenching activities and other excavations can fatally injure a tree. Often times the worst thing that can happen to a mature tree is for a deep trench (gas line or other utility line) to be dug inside the drip line (between the branch tips and the trunk).


Removing a large part of the root system can make a tree unstable, and reduce its ability to get nutrients and water from the soil. Open wounds on roots also creates an avenue for destructive pathogens, which may already be present in the soil, to enter the tree. While it is not recommended for branch cuts to be painted any more, it is recommended for large roots to be painted with a tree wound dressing.

Excessive soil fill smothers tree roots
The trees fit the plan, but the plan doesn't fit the trees!
Soil fill over these Spruce tree roots will lead
to their slow decline and eventual death.

BEFORE you begin new construction

Before you start construction on your building lot, select the trees you would like to keep. Some trees will have to be removed to allow for construction of the house and driveway. A professional nurseryman or arborist can help you identify the best trees to keep from the remaining group. Generally speaking, the Maples and Oaks will hold more value than weed trees like Black Locust and Wild Cherry. However, any tree in good condition in the right spot may be worth preserving.

To preserve the trees you decide to keep, follow these 3 steps:

1. Cut trenches for utility lines far away from important trees.
2. No excavating equipment or heavy trucks should be driven over top of the roots (most tree roots are located from the trunk to just beyond the branch tips). Fence this area off with temporary fencing. Following this advice will also protect tree trunks from 'nicks' caused by excavation equipment like you see in the photo below.
3. Don't change the soil grade around trees by raising or lowering the soil level, or dump soil against tree trunks.

Tree trunk damage from a skid steer loader
Ouch! Tree bark damaged by a skid steer loader.
Gag! Roots buried with excess soil fill.

Sidewalks damaged by tree roots

Trees are often planted in narrow lawn strips between streets and a sidewalks. The first sign of trouble is when concrete sidewalk slabs start to heave and crack, creating hazardous tripping spots for pedestrians.

Proper species selection will help curb this problem (pun intended) as well as the use of commercial root barriers, which act to deflect roots deeper into the ground, away from pavement. Root barriers need to be installed when a tree is first planted.

Heaved sidewalk from tree roots
Tree roots heaved this concrete sidewalk and
created a hazardous situation


Surface Roots

Topping Trees

Tree FAQ


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