Protect Your Trees by Protecting Their Roots

Like most other living things, trees live in conflict with the world around them.

Their crowns are constantly buffeted by strong winds, while their trunks are assaulted by tunneling insects and teenage vandals. Caterpillars consume their leaves and beavers devour their delicate cambium layer. Bacteria, viruses and other pathogens also threaten trees and remind us that the tiniest organisms can bring giants to their knees.

But trees usually cope with most of these threats. They shed diseased branches, compartmentalize wounds and produce reaction wood to help cope with the prevailing winds. However, some types of damage are more difficult for trees to handle – especially when this damage occurs to a tree’s root system.

The Many Responsibilities of Roots

Root damage is devastating to trees in part because roots perform so many crucial functions. This means that injured or infected roots can compromise several different biological systems simultaneously.

Some of the most important services roots provide to trees include:

  • Roots draw water from the ground to keep the tree hydrated.
  • Roots anchor trees in the soil and keep them upright.
  • Roots are the important storage vessels for carbohydrates.
  • Roots draw the minerals used to help produce new tissue from the soil.
  • Roots sometimes serve as the place from which new stems emerge.

As you can see, roots are quite important to trees, so it is very important to protect them from harm and provide them with the best possible growing conditions. We’ll discuss five of the best ways to do so below.

Five Ways to Protect Your Tree’s Roots

Protecting your tree’s roots isn’t terribly difficult, and it won’t require vast sums of money or labor. In fact, many of the most helpful steps include things to avoid doing.

1. Plant your trees at the appropriate depth.

Many people make the mistake of planting trees too deeply, which can unnecessarily stress the developing root system. Most tree roots grow in the upper 12 to 24 inches of the soil; when forced to grow beneath this level, they can struggle to access enough oxygen. Just make sure that the top of the root flare is readily visible above the ground when planting new trees, and you can avoid most such problems.

2. Mulch over the root zone.

Roots must be prevented from desiccation, shielded from temperature extremes and nourished with plenty of organic matter. A 4-inch-thick layer of organic mulch will not only accomplish these goals, it will also help prevent weeds and grass from germinating near the roots.

3. Limit foot and vehicular traffic.

Soil compaction, such as that which occurs in areas with heavy foot or vehicular traffic, reduces the soil’s pore size. This limits the amount of water and oxygen that will penetrate the soil, thereby making it poorly suited for root development. Additionally, compacted soil makes it difficult for roots to grow and keep up with the tree’s increasing needs for water and nutrients. Accordingly, you’ll want to provide alternative routes for people and vehicles, so that they won’t be traveling over the tree’s root zone.

4. Limit construction activity near trees.

Construction activity is notorious for killing tree roots. The heavy equipment used can not only compact the soil in the root zone, but it can also physically damage roots at the surface. However, construction activity may also change the grade of the surrounding land, which can change the way water flows across the soil. This may wash away the soil near the roots, leaving them exposed and vulnerable to desiccation and sunscald.

5. Prevent mechanical damage wrought by lawnmowers and similar equipment.

Lawnmowers and similar landscaping tools are responsible for a lot of root damage – they are particularly dangerous for partially exposed roots. Once cut or broken by landscaping equipment, the roots not only become less efficient at drawing water and nutrients from the soil, they can also serve as an entry point for pathogens. Just avoid planting grass underneath your trees (and add a layer of mulch over the roots), and you can almost entirely eliminate this possibility.


Protecting your tree’s roots isn’t terribly difficult, and it can drastically increase your tree’s chances of living a long, healthy life. Just try to embrace the tips presented here and keep your tree’s roots in mind when carrying out any large landscaping or home-improvement tasks.

If you’re worried about your tree’s roots, give your friends at Evergreen Arborist Consultants a call. One of our arborists will visit your property, assess the growing conditions and potential threats present, and then provide recommendations for keeping your tree roots healthy and damage-free.