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How Much Root Damage Can a Tree Take?

Any tree’s root system is its lifeline, absorbing much-needed nutrients and water from the surrounding soil to feed the tree and keep it firmly upright. Since this is common knowledge, it’s easy to assume that any tree root damage will kill the plant because it will no longer have the sustenance it needs. 

While that’s not entirely true, just how much root damage can a tree take? As a top tree service company in Nashville, Tennessee, Tree Care Inc. regularly tackles tree damage, even to root systems. Below, the team discusses the average root breakage percentage your tree can handle and what else you can do to keep your precious trees healthy. 

How People Harm Tree Roots

When selecting trees for your yard, you likely consider aesthetic value, shade, and how the plant ties into your entire landscape. You want to take care of your trees’ beauty and health. So, you’ll also want to know about the many ways that people unintentionally harm their trees, including by damaging their root systems. 

The main problem with tree root harm is that it’s easy to do, even accidentally. For example, damage often occurs when you dig trenches, install underground plumbing and utility lines, or till the landscape, not realizing how far and wide feeder roots spread. These feeder roots absorb water, nutrients, and oxygen from the upper layer of soil, so they’re relatively close to the ground’s surface. 

Other Causes of Tree Root Damage

Though humans are the main reason for tree root injuries, other sources of harm include:

  • Not getting enough nutrients, resulting in poor development.
  • Soil compaction from foot or vehicle traffic, especially on farming land.
  • Too much water absorption, resulting in structural weakness.
  • Lack of water that causes the tree to cull its own roots to ensure its survival.

How Long It Takes for Mature Trees To Recover From Root Damage

So, how much root damage can a tree take before it dies off? Most mature trees have great resilience, though shrubs and smaller plants have even more. Typically, an acceptable root breakage percentage is around 20%—a well-established tree may be able to lose a fifth of its roots without suffering major problems.

Trees heal their wounds over time with surface-level injuries. This may take several months or years, but it is possible.

Common Signs of Tree Root Damage

Damaged trees need lots of energy to recover. Because they delegate their energy reserves to their root systems, trees exhibit certain warning signs that they’re suffering from some form of root damage, such as:

  • Lackluster appearance.
  • Branch dieback.
  • Unexplained death of twigs and buds.
  • Off-season color changes.
  • Unusually slow growth.
  • Fungal growth.
  • Sudden trunk tilt.

It can be almost impossible to tell if your tree has a problem when the injury first occurs, as everything happens quite slowly in these ancient systems. Also, many symptoms of tree root damage mimic the warning signs of other tree health problems.

If you suspect a problem or notice you’ve hit a root, call a local tree care service like Tree Care Inc. for an assessment. The faster an experienced arborist can diagnose the tree, the more likely recovery will be. Otherwise, it might take years for a tree to display the physical evidence of root damage and be too late to intervene.

Investing in annual tree maintenance services also uncovers these kinds of problems long before symptoms begin, giving your trees a better chance at recovery.

how much root damage can a tree take

How To Minimize Tree Root Damage

How an arborist will respond to tree root damage depends on the cause. Taking steps to minimize the risk of damage to your trees’ roots would be the first prize. You can also give the tree a chance to heal if it already has injuries by doing the following:

Surface Root Wounds 

When tree roots are close to the surface of your lawn, mechanical landscaping equipment like lawnmowers and rototillers can easily cut into feeder roots, though they shouldn’t harm structural roots deeper in the soil. Damage that is bad enough will prevent the feeder roots from taking in nutrients, though, and mulch is the answer.

Apply a thin layer of mulch around your trees to keep your landscaping equipment from getting too close to the trees’ roots in the topsoil. Otherwise, consider planting ground cover there for simultaneous protection and visual appeal for your landscape.

Soil Compaction

Soil compaction happens with heavy foot traffic or heavy machinery rolling over the lawn. Compaction turns the ground solid, eliminating those vital pockets of air the tree’s roots depend upon to breathe. Without the much-needed oxygen, no tree will grow, let alone thrive. 

Like all living organisms, trees need enough air to live. If compaction has become an issue, aeration or vertical mulching are great solutions. For example, an arborist might help you to drill holes into the soil and fill the void with an airy material, like perlite.

Digging Damage

Lastly, any time you intend to dig around a tree, it’s best to create a visible border around its canopy’s drip line (the outermost circumference). This step greatly reduces the risk of inadvertent root damage. 

Still, if injury occurs despite this barrier, you’ll want to consult an arborist on what to do. The help differs depending on the age of the tree, its species, and the extent of the damage. After that, you’ll also need to water the tree more frequently to give it enough resources as it recovers.

Contact Tree Care Inc. for More Tree Health Guidance

Isn’t tree resilience phenomenal? Majestic trees and plants can withstand a decent amount of damage to their roots. Still, having a professional regularly inspect and maintain your trees’ health brings peace of mind if you do happen to accidentally harm your tree’s roots.

If you’re in Nashville, Tennessee, Tree Care Inc. has more than 25 years of experience in providing tree care, stump removal, and emergency tree services and helping you maximize your ROI on tree removal projects.

How much root damage can a tree take? If you’d like to check your tree specifically, call Tree Care Inc. at (615) 316-5166 to request your free estimate!


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