Ask a Question forum: Mass of tree roots

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Ithaca, NY
Jul 22, 2017 5:18 PM CST
When I first moved into this corner house, the patch of soil on the corner was a mass of weeds. I spent days pulling out weeds and enriching the soil then planted a lovely corner garden that has drawn many compliments from passers-by over the 15 years I have lived here. There was a maple sapling in front of the house when I moved in. This year, some of the perennials didn't come up. When I went to plant replacements, I couldn't even break the ground because the maple tree's roots had spread to this garden and the whole garden was suddenly a mass of dense roots. I used a sharp knife to cut through the roots then pulled wads of them out to plant new plants, but the new plants are struggling because new roots have overspread the space. Is there anything I can do to get rid of the tree roots or do I have to write off this formerly gorgeous garden and consign it to the weeds?
Minnesota (Zone 3b)
Jul 22, 2017 9:23 PM CST
How large is the tree trunk now in diameter?
What type of Maple?

If you are trying to plant near the tree, with in a foot or so, you are fighting a losing battle.
Go out about two feet from the tree and you should have lessor problems as I have Hostas planted around two Maple trees and they are doing very well but they were planted far enough that the trunk and roots would not hamper them but any larger root that might cause a problem was cut off.
There was only one large root I did not want to deal with so I left that go. It is now used as a plate for bird and squirrel food as I cut the top flat with the lawn mower.
They are now right next to the trunk on both and doing well and have been there ten years . The trees are forty years old.
Name: Daisy I
Reno, Nv (Zone 6b)
Not all who wander are lost
Garden Sages Plant Identifier
Jul 22, 2017 11:48 PM CST
It sounds as though this tree has not put down deep roots. Trees need to be deeply watered every couple weeks to draw the roots down deep. If the tree has only gotten water from the sprinklers, the roots will be on the surface because that is where the moisture is.
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and proclaiming...."WOW What a Ride!!" -Mark Frost

Ithaca, NY
Jul 23, 2017 2:43 PM CST
I'm not an expert on maples, but looking at samples of leaves, trunks and fall coloring, I'd guess it's a silver maple. The trunk is roughly 18 inches in diameter. I could measure the circumference and do the math, but 18 inches is pretty close. The corner garden is about ten feet from the base of the tree, and this year, the tips of the branches have spread far enough to overhang the edge of the garden. This is the first year the fine, shallow roots have reached this far. We had a severe drought last year with watering restrictions, so that might explain why the fine, shallow roots have spread this far. My solution for a garden full of roots at the side of my house was to dig out holes with a large, sharp knife and a lopper to cut through and clear out the roots and sink pots into the ground so I would have some root-free soil in which to plant, but that was an incredible amount of work for a very small garden so I wondered if there was some other way to get rid of the roots other than manually removing them. These are mostly very fine roots but they are very dense--the whole garden is like a big bird's nest!
Name: stone
near Macon Georgia (USA) (Zone 8a)
Plant Identifier Garden Sages Million Pollinator Garden Challenge
Jul 24, 2017 7:04 AM CST
Maples are typically shallow rooted.
Silver maples are apparently some of the most egregious.

You are fighting a losing battle.

Suggest that you research shallow rooted plants... And.... Figure out what plants you've been calling "weeds".

Potentially, you are removing valuable plants well suited for poor conditions... The secret is to figure out which of them have redeeming qualities.

You might try native ferns.
Ithaca, NY
Jul 24, 2017 6:05 PM CST
Thanks, Stone, for the information. I guess there's nothing I can do but try to work around this new state of affairs. When I moved in, the corner was planted with creeping yew, a lot of which was dead, and there were grass roots wrapped around the yew roots. I couldn't cut the grass since the yew was present, so I had to pull it out manually. The "weeds" were mostly weedy grasses. Once I'd cut back the dead yew and dug out all the grass roots, I had decent soil (which I enriched) to work with. I planted bulb plants of all types to come up over the course of the spring and summer, hardy geranium, border lilies, mums, scabiosa, dianthus, irises, etc. in the spaces between the healthy yew growths, providing a rotating pallet of colors and blooms, and a few hostas where the yew provided some shade. This year, some of the bulb plants couldn't break through the roots to come up at all. The hostas struggled and were smaller, leaving bare spaces. The hardy geraniums did fine and I could just let them overspread the space, but it wouldn't be the beautiful garden it was. Everything that managed to break through was weak and straggly and produced few blooms if any. Over the course of the summer, I used to plant annuals in the spaces left when the bulb plants had completed their cycle, but I couldn't get any of them to "take" well since the roots I cut and pulled out grew back in and strangled the annuals. I'll find solutions--hardy geraniums aren't the only plant that can grow through anything, but I was particularly sad to lose the bulb plants that make the corner such a delight from March or April on. I guess I just needed to hear that trying to get rid of the roots is a losing battle so I can grieve over the lost spring symphony of color then move on to less spectacular but tougher plants.
Name: Sally
central Maryland
Seriously addicted to kettle chips.
Charter ATP Member Native Plants and Wildflowers Region: Mid-Atlantic Composter Region: Maryland Birds
Cat Lover Dog Lover Region: United States of America
Jul 25, 2017 5:54 AM CST
Some options to try- They do OK under my maples. Maybe your root situation is more extreme.

Aquilegia, will bloom for spring and go dormant when the summer heat and roots dry it up
Native woodpoppy, same (Stylophorum)
Lily of the valley- but be very careful if you unleash that you will have it forever.
Native gingers.
Leadwort- Ceratostigma
Mulch around any of these and accept the seasonal nature of some. Or set potted annuals in summer?
..come into the peace of wild things..-Wendell Berry
Life is a buffet (anon)
Name: Zoƫ
Albuquerque, New Mexico (Zone 7b)
Jul 25, 2017 11:06 AM CST
I have a similar situation with a Siberian elm. After moving to this property six years ago, I struggled with a bed along my fence - absolutely nothing I planted would grow or thrive despite massive applications of soil amendments and water. The problem turned out to be a mature elm twelve feet away at the roadside which completely choked that particular bed with two-foot-deep feeder roots.
I arrived at a satisfying solution: covered the soil with river rock and cedar mulch in an artistic pattern, moved in a birdbath, and clustered large ceramic pots which hold perennials, ornamental grasses and seasonal annuals. Really, it looks terrific and I can change the look each year with different plants and rearranging the pots.
Not every beautiful garden has to be grown in the ground. Good luck!
For me, gardening is really just an excuse for playing in the dirt. Admittedly, plants are a satisfying by-product.
Ithaca, NY
Jul 25, 2017 3:20 PM CST
Thanks for all the suggestions! I sunk pots into a garden at the side of the house which was choked with a dense mat of roots and that worked, so I guess I'll do that between the hardier plants that can struggle through the roots successfully. I got carpel tunnel syndrome for the first time tackling the root mat at the side of the house, so I've learned to space out this kind of tough hand-and-wrist work! Thank You!

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