Tree Roots Above Ground: Effective Strategies for Prevention and Care

Strolling through your garden, you might’ve spotted tree roots snaking across the surface and wondered, “Why are my tree roots exposed?” It’s a common sight in many landscapes, and while they add a certain rugged charm, they can also signal issues needing attention.

In this article, I’ll delve into the reasons behind tree roots growing above ground and the implications it may have for your leafy friends. We’ll explore eco-friendly solutions to mitigate any problems, ensuring your trees stay healthy and your garden remains hazard-free. Keep reading to unearth the secrets of managing exposed tree roots effectively.

What are Tree Roots Above Ground?

As I delve into the world of gardening and tree care, one question that pops up frequently is: Why do tree roots grow above the ground? On my walks through urban and suburban neighbourhoods, I often see tree roots sprawling across the soil surface. It’s not just an aesthetic issue; these exposed roots could signal problems for the tree’s health.

Tree roots can emerge above ground for several reasons. Natural causes like erosion or soil compaction often lead to this phenomenon. However, human activities, such as construction, landscaping, or inadequate space for root development, also contribute to this occurrence. Trees in their quest for water and nutrients will sometimes extend their roots above soil level, especially in areas where the soil is shallow or compacted.

Exposed roots are more than just an eyesore or tripping hazard. They’re susceptible to damage from lawn mowers and foot traffic, which can wound the roots and leave the tree vulnerable to infection and pests. Lawn mower blades are particularly damaging to tree roots; they’re not designed to handle the tough, gnarly texture of roots and can become damaged on impact. This isn’t good for the tree or your lawn care equipment.

One key aspect of dealing with exposed tree roots is identifying the type of roots that are surfacing. Some roots are critical for the tree’s stability, while others play a major role in absorbing nutrients. It’s important to assess the function of the exposed roots to ensure that you don’t inadvertently harm the tree’s health or stability.

Mitigating the issue of roots above ground involves a careful approach. Eco-friendly solutions are available that balance the health of the tree with the need to manage the landscape. Engaging in safe practices that protect the tree’s essential functions is of utmost importance. Addressing the root of the problem—pun intended—requires an understanding of the tree’s growth patterns and the environmental factors at play. By attending to these vital below-ground elements, we can better care for our leafy companions and maintain a harmonious and safe outdoor space.

Why Do Tree Roots Grow Above Ground?

Exposed tree roots can be an intriguing yet concerning sight for any arborist or homeowner. Understanding why these roots surface is crucial for the preservation and health of the trees.

Lack of Space

When trees find themselves wedged between hard places like a rock and a hard surface, quite literally, their roots often have no choice but to snake above ground. Urban and suburban landscapes hardly offer the generous spaces that trees need to expand their underground architecture. If they’re surrounded by sidewalks, streets, or buildings, roots may be forced to grow out of the soil to seek the resources they need.

I’ve noticed that in confined areas, a tree’s root system can’t always follow its natural growth pattern. Instead, roots might emerge above ground level in search of space to maintain the health and stability of the tree. It’s when the invisible fight for room underneath clashes with the visible structures above.

Soil Conditions

The texture and consistency of soil significantly influence root behaviour. In ideal conditions, roots flourish just beneath the soil within the top 12 to 18 inches, where most nutrients are found. However, if a tree is planted in soil that is susceptible to erosion, its roots become vulnerable. They may become uncovered as the topsoil is stripped away by rain, runoff, or wind, especially on inclines.

In many instances, it’s the composition of the soil that directs roots upward. The type of soil, whether it’s clay-heavy or sandy, can either promote healthy underground growth or limit it, leading the roots to venture above for sustenance.

Poor Drainage

Water is a lifeline for trees but in the right amount and at the right place. Oversaturation of soil with moisture can create an anaerobic environment that’s bereft of oxygen. When roots can’t breathe, they can’t absorb the necessary nutrients effectively. In response, trees adapt by directing their roots towards the surface to access the required oxygen.

Soil compaction is another key factor. It occurs when the soil is compressed to a point where there is little room for air or water to move through, impeding the roots’ ability to uptake oxygen. All these factors lead to roots that pop up out of the earth in their quest to find a more habitable space.

Root growth above ground isn’t merely an aesthetic blemish but a cry for attention. There are answers to questions such as “Why are my tree roots exposed?” or “What can I do about it?” The focus always revolves around understanding the intricate dealings of roots below ground to maintain the vitality of the trees we value.

Soil aeration techniques near tree roots

The Impact of Tree Roots Above Ground

Damage to Infrastructure

One of the most significant impacts of tree roots growing above ground is their potential to damage infrastructure. I’ve seen how roots can stealthily creep toward man-made structures, over time causing cracks and upheaval in sidewalks, driveways and even roads. The strength of tree roots shouldn’t be underestimated; they’re powerful enough to displace concrete and asphalt with ease as they seek room to grow. It’s not only horizontal surfaces that are at risk—foundations of homes can also fall prey to these subterranean invaders.

Take sewer systems, for instance. They offer an attractive destination for tree roots searching for moisture. Once a tiny root finds its way into a crack or joint in a pipe, it can expand and cause blockages or even complete structural failure. The costs for repair can be substantial, not to mention the inconvenience of dealing with such an issue.

Damage to Landscaping

Moving beyond hard infrastructure, I can tell you that tree roots above ground can wreak havoc on your overall garden aesthetic and functionality. They can disrupt the smooth surface of a lush lawn, making mowing a real challenge. I’ve seen how gardens that were once the pride of homeowners have been reduced to uneven and unsightly patches, all thanks to sprawling roots.

Unfortunately, these surface roots don’t just spoil the look—they can also cause physical damage to other landscaping elements. Buried irrigation systems, lighting, and even edging can be lifted or broken as roots expand. This kind of damage often goes unnoticed until significant harm has already been done, making repairs costly and sometimes extensive.

Interference with Other Plants

In the intricate web of the garden ecosystem, tree roots above ground can also interfere with the well-being of other plants. They’re in direct competition for water and nutrients, essentially pitting the mighty tree against more delicate flora. This can lead to undernourished, stunted growth, or even the death of surrounding plants that can’t compete with the tree’s demands.

For gardeners looking to cultivate healthy, diverse landscapes, managing tree roots is crucial to ensure all plants have a fair shot at thriving. Selective planting around trees, balanced watering regimes, and strategic root management are all tactics I’ve employed in my gardening endeavours, keeping in mind that trees and plants must coexist harmoniously without one overpowering the other.

 guide to pruning tree roots


How to Manage Tree Roots Above Ground

When tree roots start to surface, it’s easy to see this as a problem. But it’s also an opportunity to assess the health of the tree and improve the conditions for its growth. Let’s explore a few methods.

Soil Aeration

Soil aeration is a critical step in managing surface tree roots. Compacted soil lacks the necessary oxygen for roots, which might push them above ground in their quest for air. I’ve found that using tools like an air spade to loosen the soil around roots not only protects the tree from root damage but also promotes healthier root development. This aeration process helps the soil absorb more oxygen, moisture, and nutrients, fostering a better environment underground, so that roots are less likely to come up for air.

When aerating, it’s essential to incorporate organic matter into the soil, as this will improve soil structure and offer the tree a chance for more robust growth. A combination of loose soil and organic compost creates a rejuvenating mixture that encourages the roots to remain subterranean. Additionally, regular watering ensures the soil stays aerated, preventing further soil compaction. Each tree species has its own watering needs, so it’s important to stick to a schedule suitable for the specific trees on your property.

Proper Pruning and Trimming

When managing the exposed roots of a tree, pruning and trimming come with a strict set of guidelines. It’s crucial not to remove more than a certain percentage of the tree’s root system at a time to avoid inadvertently harming the tree. Here are a few points to guide you:

  • Avoid pruning roots that are too close to the trunk.
  • Never cut more than 25% of a tree’s exposed roots at any time.
  • After pruning, give the tree a recovery period of at least two years before cutting any additional roots.
Distance to CutMeasure the trunk’s diameter and multiply by 5.
Maximum CutDo not prune more than 25% of exposed roots.
Waiting PeriodAllow a recovery of 2 years before additional root pruning.

Installing Root Barriers

For a preventative approach, root barriers are quite an effective solution. They redirect root growth downward and away from surfaces like sidewalks and foundations that can be cracked or lifted by growing roots. By installing barriers at the right depth and distance from the tree, the roots are guided away from areas where they could cause damage. While this method is proactive, it’s important to consider the tree species and root growth patterns to avoid creating a situation where the roots simply emerge on a different side of the barrier. Root barriers should be installed with careful planning and precision, often with professional support to ensure that they work effectively and don’t harm the tree in the long run.


I’ve walked you through the complexities of tree roots surfacing above ground and the challenges they present. Armed with the knowledge of why it happens and the potential damage it can cause, you’re now better equipped to tackle this issue head-on. Remember, managing these roots isn’t just about aesthetics; it’s about maintaining the safety and integrity of your surroundings. By implementing strategies like soil aeration, careful pruning, and installing root barriers, you can ensure the vitality of your trees and the protection of your property. It’s a delicate balance, but with the right approach, you can cultivate a harmonious environment where both your trees and infrastructure can thrive.

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