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Knowledgebase record #859

PAL Question

I have two mature cherry trees on my parking strip that are about 20 feet tall. Their roots protrude above the sidewalk level and are quite prominent. There used to be grass planted above them but it wasn't well maintained and I took it out several years ago. After trying different plantings, I'd like to put sod back on the strip and wondered if it was best to cover the roots fully with soil and lay the sod on top of that, or if it would be okay to let the roots be partly exposed and lay the sod around them.


I am not sure that it would be wise to reinstall sod over your trees' roots. You may want to mulch them lightly (no more than 2-3 inches, and keep away from the trunk), as described by a document formerly available from North Carolina State University Extension:
"Exposed surface roots can become unsightly or in the way. Roots do not suddenly grow on the soil surface. Roots increase in diameter over a period of years. Soil erosion can speed their exposure. Exposed roots need protection from pedestrian and vehicle traffic including lawn mowers. Mulching exposed roots physically protects them as well as conserves soil moisture and prevents direct sunlight from heating the roots. Cutting off or covering roots with top soil are temporary solutions that can cause long term damage to tree roots."

There is excellent, clear information in this link to the International Society of Arboriculture's page on trees and turf. Ultimately, the best thing for your trees and your grass is to create a grass-free zone under the trees' dripline, mulch that area, and restrict lawn grass to the area beyond the dripline. Here is an excerpt from the link:

"Trees, shrubs, ground covers, and lawn grasses all require sunlight, water, and rooting space for growth. Each plant in the landscape competes with neighboring plants regardless of type or species. Some even produce chemicals that are exuded from roots to restrict growth of nearby plants. For each plant to do well, it must have adequate space. Because perennial woody plants increase in size each year, they require additional space over time. The landscape design should provide adequate space for these plants to mature.

"While shade is the biggest, most obvious problem trees create for turf growth, a tree's roots also contribute to poor turf performance. Contrary to general thinking, most tree roots are in the top 2 feet of soil. More important, the majority of fine, water absorbing roots are in the top 6 inches of soil. Grass roots ordinarily occupy a much greater percentage of the soil volume than tree roots and outcompete them for water and nutrients, especially around young trees. However, grass root density is often much lower in areas where trees were established first. In these situations, tree roots compete much better for water and nutrients and prevent or reduce the success of establishing new turf.

"Competition is especially important when transplanting, seeding, or sodding. The newest plant in the area must be given special treatment and must receive adequate water, nutrients, and sunlight, which frequently means that competing sod should be removed from around transplanted trees and shrubs or that some of the lower branches should be removed from existing trees above a newly sodded lawn. In any case, do not do any tilling around trees.

"Mulching is an alternative to turf around trees, and its use eliminates potential competition. A 2- to 4-inch layer of wood chips, bark, or other organic material over the soil under the drip line is recommended because it

  • helps retain soil moisture
  • helps reduce weeds and controls grass
  • increases soil fertility when mulch decomposes
  • improves appearance
  • protects the trunk from injuries caused by mowing equipment and trimmers that often result in serious tree damage or death
  • improves soil structure (better aeration, temperature, and moisture conditions)

"Maintenance practices for trees and turf are different. Because tree and grass roots exist together in the upper 6 to 8 inches of the topsoil, treatment of one may damage the other. Fertilizer applied to one plant will also be absorbed by the roots of a nearby plant. Normally that is good, but excessive fertilization of either trees or turf can result in tree crown or grass blade growth greater than desired."

Keywords: Tree roots, Lawns and turfgrasses
Date: 2011-06-17

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