Exposed Tree Roots? Why It Happens and What to Do

Rarely seen but vitally important, roots are the unsung heroes of your trees. But what happens if you see exposed tree roots?

Tree roots growing above ground are a common sight in many urban and suburban areas of Cincinnati. Exposed roots can be a sign of trouble that raises several questions:

  • Why are my tree roots exposed?
  • What can happen if my tree roots become exposed?
  • Is there anything I can do about exposed tree roots?

What Tree Roots Do

Tree roots have an important job. They absorb nutrients from the soil, which are used for growth and performing photosynthesis, which allows plants to develop and grow.

In addition to helping trees grow, roots anchor trees firmly to the earth. Without strong, healthy roots, leaning and fallen trees would be a common sight.

The base of a large tree surrounded by fallen brown leaves with its roots growing above the surface of the ground.

Why Roots Become Exposed

Tree roots can become exposed for several reasons.

Some trees are naturally shallow rooting, making their roots more likely to grow above the soil surface. For example, some maple trees, dogwoods, and ash trees are known for their shallow roots, so you need to take special care when planting these species.

But regardless of the species, exposed roots can appear with nearly any tree. Why is this? Exposed roots could be the result of many things, three of the most common being:

  • Poor soil conditions including:
    • Compaction
    • Oversaturation
  • Erosion
  • The area the tree is growing isn’t large enough to accommodate the roots

Your Roots Are Suffocating

Along with essential nutrients, roots need to be able to absorb oxygen. If the soil is in good condition, they do this very well. However, soil that’s either too compacted or oversaturated with moisture creates an environment that deprives the roots of the oxygen they need.

In response to the lack of oxygen in compacted or oversaturated soil, trees adapt by directing their roots up and out of the ground where they can reach the oxygen they need.

How Erosion Exposes Roots

Erosion is a natural weathering process caused by wind and water. Erosion occurs when the force of wind or water repeatedly moves tiny amounts of soil; over time, those tiny movements can add up to a lot of soil washing or wearing away. Erosion is a natural process, but there can be too much of a good thing. When this happens, your roots can become exposed.

Ideally, trees are planted in spaces where erosion won’t be a significant factor, but this isn’t always the case.

Roots Need Room to Grow

When trees are planted in small areas, their roots don’t have enough room to expand naturally. When this happens, the roots will grow out of the soil and spread along the surface, searching for water and nutrients. That’s why it’s important to consider the roots when planting a tree. Just because space can accommodate a tree’s trunk doesn’t mean there will be enough space for the roots!

The base of a tree with wet, exposed roots that have been exposed by water erosion.

The Problem with Exposed Tree Roots

Often, roots growing above the ground don’t cause a problem for the tree. Many trees grow with their roots exposed and do just fine. However, just because the tree keeps growing and appears healthy, that doesn’t mean the tree is safe.

Exposed Tree Roots Can Trip You Up

Exposed roots present a genuine safety hazard to people. You probably won’t think twice about tree roots growing above ground until after you’ve caught a toe on them and trip. More than likely, however, it won’t be you who trips but a child playing in your yard.

And it’s not just toes that can get caught up on roots that grow above ground. Lawn mower blades aren’t made for chopping tree roots, so hitting an exposed one can damage the blade. Even worse, this can injure the roots, exposing them to pest and disease issues.

Shallow Roots Can Damage Structures and Underground Utilities

While planting trees away from structures and underground utilities is always wise, shallow exposed roots can cause problems even if you’ve done everything right.

It’s not uncommon for shallow roots to get tied up with and damage underground utilities such as sewer pipes and other plumbing. These shallow exposed roots can also grow into cracks in your home’s foundation, causing significant damage over time and compromising its structural integrity.

Large fallen tree with exposed roots laying over the suburban sidewalk.

Weakly Anchored Trees Could Fall

Tree roots grow beneath the earth to obtain nutrition and anchor the tree to the ground. If a tree’s roots grow above ground, they cannot anchor the tree. Exposed roots can make the tree itself a hazard.

A falling tree puts people and structures on your property at risk of serious damage. Trees with exposed roots are likelier to fall in extreme weather like high winds or heavy snowfall. Plus, trees that fall on powerlines are a significant danger, potentially leading to fires, electrocution, and even death.

What to Do About Exposed Tree Roots

Exposed roots can be dealt with in a variety of ways. The method used will depend on the type of tree, its location, and whether it presents a safety or property hazard.

Cover Exposed Tree Roots with a Thin Layer of Mulch

Adding a thin layer of mulch can remedy exposed roots in some cases, but apply it carefully. Spreading mulch too deeply is a recipe for root rot.

Only use enough mulch to cover the exposed roots about one-half an inch.

Remove the Tree

When roots growing above the ground create a hazard for people or property, you may want to consider tree removal. After the tree has been cut down, the above-ground roots can also be removed.

Homeowners sometimes ask us, “Can’t I just grind the roots down so they’re out of the way?” The answer is, “No, you can’t.” Since tree roots are vital to a tree’s survival, removing or damaging the roots is a sure way to kill a tree. 

How to Prevent Exposed Tree Roots

You can prevent roots from growing above ground by:

  • avoiding overwatering your trees,
  • aerating compacted soil to allow more oxygen to reach the tree’s root zone, and
  • carefully choosing planting locations for new trees to avoid areas that are prone to erosion.

Are Your Tree’s Roots Exposed?

If you’re concerned about tree roots above ground, you need a tree removed, or you need any kind of tree service in the Cincinnati area, call Lefke Tree Experts at 513-325-1783 for a free quote or fill out our convenient online quote form.

Lefke Logos (200 × 200 px)

About Lefke Tree Experts

Our professional tree services include tree removal, tree pruning and trimming, clearing, and stump grinding for the greater Cincinnati metro area. We are a fully insured company with the training, equipment, and expertise needed to get the job done right. If there’s a tree in your yard that needs to be trimmed or removed, call us today!

You can always reach us at 513-325-1783.