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Healthy Tree Roots are Vital

by Don Janssen, Extension Educator

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Trees are important fixtures in the urban and rural landscape. We value above-ground parts of trees for their spring flowers, cooling shade in summer, and vibrant leaf colors. But healthy root systems below ground are vital for tree vigor and longevity. Roots are responsible for water and mineral nutrient uptake, energy storage, and anchorage. If for any reason tree roots are damaged, tree health will be jeopardized.

Because roots work quietly out of sight underground, most people have a poor understanding of this important subterranean network. In general, roots grow where the resources of life (water, oxygen, and mineral nutrients) are available. They usually will not grow where there is no oxygen or where the soil is compacted and hard to penetrate. This need for oxygen explains why a majority of tree roots are located in the top 12 to 18 inches of soil.

As trees mature in the landscape they attain a rather delicate balance with their surrounding environment. In fact, trees grow best in an environment of minimal change. Unfortunately, our urban, suburban, and even rural landscapes are places where drastic changes like driveway and sidewalk installation, grade changes, road widening, and utility trenching occur frequently. Such construction activities near trees can cause substantial root injury which may be fatal to established trees.

Of all the soil disturbances previously mentioned, grade changes and their impact on tree roots may be the least understood. Since roots are near the surface and depend on oxygen from the atmosphere, raising or lowering the soil level around an established tree can have serious impact. Scraping the soil away from a tree removes or injures important absorbing and transport roots, eliminates nutrient-rich topsoil, and exposes other roots to desiccating (drying) conditions. And if heavy equipment is used during the grading process, additional tree injury occurs because of soil compaction. Instead of lowering the grade, valuable trees might be protected by raising the grade elsewhere. If soil removal becomes absolutely necessary, grade changes should be limited to areas outside the branch spread of trees.

Soil fills which raise the grade around trees are equally harmful. Soil additions reduce the oxygen supply to roots, compact the soil, and often raise the water table. Soil additions six inches or less will probably not harm "fill-tolerant" trees (Colorado spruce, catalpa, silver maple, green ash Eastern cottonwood, swamp white oak, river birch, red maple, black willow) especially if the fill material is good topsoil, high in organic matter and loamy in texture. But, irreparable damage will result if as little as two inches of clay soils are used as fill, particularly around "fill-intolerant" trees (white fir, red oak, white pine, linden, white oak, scotch pine, sugar maple, serviceberry). If fills deeper than six inches will occur, it is still best to limit those grade changes to areas outside the branch spread of the tree.

(This resource was added July 2003 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement)

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office