How to save a tree with damaged roots

What Should I Do If My Tree Roots Are Damaged?

Whether from damage from construction, digging in the garden, or from salt damage in winter, root damage should be taken seriously. It can negatively affect the health of your trees if not properly taken care of.

While most trees will survive damage to their roots, if the damage is extensive extra care will be needed to help save the tree. When your tree’s roots experience damage, consult a tree care specialist like Hansen’s Tree Service for next steps.

Keep An Eye On Symptoms

When a tree’s roots are damaged, critical functions of the tree’s system are disrupted. As such, it can exhibit a variety of visual symptoms to indicate that something is wrong. Symptoms of damage to your tree roots include:

  • Leaf wilting & dropping
  • Twig and branch dieback
  • Poor growth
  • Leaning

Make Sure The Tree Gets Enough Water

If your tree’s roots are damaged and the tree is not getting enough water, then it will not be able to get enough nutrients to recover and grow back. Give your tree a thorough soaking, especially if the season has been dry, so its roots can better take up nutrients from the soil.

Before watering, test the dryness of the soil with a screwdriver and if it comes out dry the tree could use a watering. Be sure not to overwater, as it can cause more harm than good in the form of rot. Do not allow the water to pool. Overwatering can also increase the likelihood of failure if the tree already exhibits a lean. Saturated soils allow roots to “slip” in the soil instead of being anchored to the soil.

Aerate The Roots

When damage to the roots occur—especially if the soil has been compacted—you will need to aerate the soil. Improved soil aeration allows for water, air, and nutrients to better reach the roots of your trees. It also alleviates soil compaction. Improving aeration can be difficult and requires drilling small diameter holes in the soil under the tree canopy, or using a powerful tool that loosens soil with compressed air.

Apply Organic Material, Including Mulch or Compost

Organic materials like mulch and compost is a great way to improve tree health. Mulch will reduce swings in soil temperature and moisture and adds organic material to benefit soil health. It is typically added to the soil surface and also acts to improve a landscape appearance. Compost will improve soil quality by adding nutrition and improving the soil structure.  Apply the mulch correctly to prevent further damage to your tree.

You can order 100% organic mulch online or over the phone at 636.379.1830 from Hansen’s Tree Service.

Provide The Tree With Support

Because a tree can lean and weaken with damaged roots, the tree may need extra support through dynamic tree cabling and limb support. Your attending ISA certified arborist will inspect the tree to determine if cabling and support is needed. If the tree is dying, your arborist may recommend removal instead.

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Roots damaged from construction work

Updated: August 2, 2022

Many plants will survive and recover from root damage if the damage does not exceed 1/4 of the total root zone.

  • Most of the important feeder roots of trees or shrubs are within the upper six inches of the soil. If damaged, the uptake of water and nutrients is restricted reducing growth.
  • Root damage may take months or even years to progress and cause symptoms of decline or death depending on the situation and how much damage occurred. 

How roots get damaged

  • Roots may be severed by any digging, trenching, or roto-tilling within the root area of established trees and shrubs during nearby grading and construction. Excavation for streets, cables, sidewalks, footings, foundations, drains, driveways, and walls are some common examples of construction practices that can potentially damage roots. 
  • Roots can be damaged by prolonged environmental or site conditions such as long-term or repeated drought, or excess water, fertilizer, or salt. 
Exposed and damaged roots after trenching

Symptoms caused by damaged roots

  • A plant may wilt and begin to decline or eventually die. Plants with damaged roots will generally show symptoms over the entire tree or shrub unless the root damage occurred on only one side of the plant. These symptoms usually progress over a number of years.
  • Damaged roots can cause buds and twigs to immediately die, weakening the plant. The weakened plant may then begin to show decline symptoms such as lack of vigor and reduced growth. 
  • Plants with damaged roots show symptoms on the side of the plant where roots have been severed. These include sparse leaves, leaf wilting and browning, and branch dieback. 
  • Other stress symptoms can include scorch and early fall color.
  • Root recovery depends on the depth of the digging and the percentage of the root system affected. After installing a driveway, patio, or otherwise excavating a yard often there are no immediate symptoms in nearby plants. Other stress factors like drought and soil compaction can contribute to the decline of trees and shrubs and it can take a few years for symptoms to appear. 
Construction damaged rootsDamaged roots caused this dieback on an azalea


  • Prevention is the best management. There is very little that can be done for roots that have already been damaged.
  • Consider careful transplanting of plants, if size allows, to a temporary holding area then replanting them when construction or grading is completed.
  • Keep plants watered.
  • Prune out any branches or stems that die as a result of the damaged root system.

Related information

What Causes Trees and Shrubs to Die?

How Do You Decide When to Remove a Tree

Still have a question? Contact us at Ask Extension.

Damage to tree roots: can they be saved?

Strong, powerful, slender, invincible - this is how we used to characterize trees. “Mighty oak”, “stately pine” - aren’t these expressions well-known? Alas, this is not always the case. And if the branches and foliage give out the reasons for the weakening of the tree, then damage to the roots of the trees goes unnoticed. But the roots play a very important role in both nutrition and respiration of the tree, and damage can cost the plant life! Let's see what happens to a tree when its roots are damaged, and how this problem can be solved.

What happens if a pine root is damaged?

A pine with a dense, heavy crown and a luxurious trunk is a familiar sight in the forest. Of course, insects constantly attack the trunk and branches, and the tree weakens, dries out. For treatment, insects are destroyed. But what happens if you damage the pine root? First of all, you need to remember that pine roots can be located in the soil in various ways. For example, in loose soil, a rod goes deep into the soil, from which small roots extend, and in dense soil, the system is located close to the surface. Accordingly, the nature of the damage, and their causes may differ.

Pine root can be damaged by various pests and is the most common cause of tree disease. But often people who, for example, carry out earthworks in the immediate vicinity of pines are also to blame. When scooping up the earth with an excavator, it is very easy to cut off a long root or even a whole section of the root system! This is fraught with quite understandable consequences: damaged roots will dry out at best, and rot at worst. Molds and insect larvae attack the underground part of the pine, and as a result, it will get sick and die, because the plant will consume nutrients and moisture in much smaller quantities, and besides, pests will undermine it.

What to do? Firstly, to make sure that damage to the roots was the cause of the pine disease: this question should be addressed to a dendrologist who can assess the situation. Secondly, if the tree is young, then you can dig it up, remove the affected parts of the roots, then soak it in a solution of potassium permanganate, and then in a solution of an antifungal drug. Of course, an adult tree is not dug out of the ground, but the soil is also watered in the places where the roots are supposed to lie and treated with antiseptics. During the rehabilitation period of pine, it is worth refraining from any top dressing and earthwork.

How to save a damaged oak root?

Take a walk in the nearest grove or park in summer: you will surely notice ground oaks that have just grown from acorns. Alas, not all of them are destined to grow into a mighty tree with a lush crown. And this is the reason: the main root grows first, going vertically deep into, and then secondary roots grow from the root neck, which will lie at a maximum depth of 50 centimeters. Since it is they who provide the plant with water, while not deep at all, any damage or even strong compaction of the soil can be fatal for the oak. But a lot of people walk past a tree growing in the park every day, trampling down the ground. This not only causes root breakage, but also prevents the development of mycorrhiza, which is so important for the health of the tree. Of course, oaks also die from the invasion of tree insects, as well as from excess moisture. Oak often begins to get sick in the spring, when microorganisms begin to develop in the microcracks left on the roots after frost.

If this wonderful tree grows on your plot, then if you find problems with its health (drying, reduced resistance to diseases), you need to think about the condition of the roots. So, how to save a damaged oak root? Fortunately, oak is a hardy tree, so it will endure minor damage calmly. Nevertheless, treatment measures should not be postponed. If root rot is diagnosed, then it is recommended to water with drying and disinfecting preparations after preliminary removal (if possible) of the maximum number of rotten areas. If the problem is drying out the roots, you should think about additional watering. If the roots are affected by insects, measures are taken to destroy them with insecticides.

Is it possible to cut the root of a spruce?

Spruces are not the most whimsical trees, but their health requires attention. Spruce roots are not very deep, so it is very easy to damage them, for example, when digging a hole or trench! Damage to the spruce root in this case will most likely lead to its decay. The rot will spread, and as a result, the tree will simply die, and the process can stretch for several years.

It happens that it is impossible to do without cutting off the root when carrying out certain works. In this case, it is necessary to consult with a specialist forest pathologist. Usually, to process a saw cut or a pruning site, it is enough to apply an antiseptic, then fill this place with earth and watch the tree. If the spruce begins to turn yellow, if signs of fungal and other diseases appear on it, you need to call the forest pathologist again.

What causes damage to the birch root

A beautiful slender birch is not only a beautiful tree. Since ancient times, it has been known that birch trees give strength: it is not for nothing that birch brooms are so popular! But it happens that the birch begins to dry out and may even fall. In the forest, this may not seem so scary, but what if a tree falls on a building? Let's figure out why this happens and what to do.

In general, it is necessary to know that the birch root has a mixed structure. First, the main, tap root grows. Lateral roots depart from it, and as they develop, part of the taproot dies off. Finally, the birch has adventitious roots growing close to the surface. All roots extract moisture from the soil, and all participate in the movement of juices. Adventitious roots spread over a long distance - the radius of the system can reach 4-5 meters. Without knowing about it, it is possible to harm the tree in the process of construction, ennoblement of the territory. But damage to the birch root can lead to big trouble!

Rot begins to develop at the site of the wound, which will soon reach the trunk. Mold develops on rotten wood, various destructive fungi, and many insects prefer just such “not the first freshness” wood for breeding. If you began to notice growths on a birch, note an increase in the number of pests or drying out of branches, the reason may be precisely in the damaged roots. What to do? If you were working and realized that you chopped off the birch root, immediately try to process the cut: cover it with clay, garden pitch. If decay is already in progress, you will have to remove the affected area and treat the soil with antifungal drugs, as well as a growth stimulator (for example, Kornevin).

What should I do if the walnut root is damaged?

Hazelnut, or hazel, is a very important part of the ecosystem. Small rodents and birds feed on its fruits, and mycorrhiza is formed on the roots - a symbiosis of a tree and a fungus. Hazel bushes growing in the grove rarely experience problems with roots, because their main root has a rod shape and goes deep into. This means that it is not easy to cause any mechanical damage to an adult hazel. But if a young hazel is planted on a site or in a park, you will have to keep an eye on the condition of the bush. Tender young roots break easily, and pathogenic and putrefactive microorganisms rush into the “wounds”. If the walnut root is damaged, the tree will not receive nutrition and will die.

If you notice such a problem in a young plant, you need to take action. If necessary, the rotten part of the root is removed, and fresh cuts are covered with garden pitch. The root must certainly be treated with any fungicide that inhibits mold fungus. The next step to saving the nut is properly preparing the seat. Do not be too lazy to find thickets of walnut and collect from under the bushes of the earth: the very beneficial fungi that form a symbiosis with the bush will probably remain in the soil. This earth must be poured into the hole where the planting is planned, and sprinkle the roots with it. This is a great contribution to the immunity of hazel!

Healthy roots make a healthy tree!

Not always the cause of a tree disease lies in the aerial part: the root system is just as vulnerable as the trunk, branches, leaves. If you can’t say for sure why a spruce or birch in your area got sick, don’t wait for it to die, contact a leopathologist: he will definitely make a diagnosis and help you not to miss precious time, and in return the tree will delight you with a healthy and lush crown!

Damage to the root system of a tree can cause its death

This material is also available to Ukrainian

Here is the first question for you: What are the roots of a healthy tree uprooted by a hurricane like? Do they look like a lollipop (like a lollipop), or like a flat pancake, spread out in the direction from the trunk? The answer to this question is the following photo:

An example of a tree upturned by a hurricane. The root system of a healthy tree resembles a flat "pancake" rather than a lollipop.

The root system of a tree plays the most important role in its survival. For example, if you want to leave trees growing on construction sites, the most important thing is to keep their roots intact. Unfortunately, most people do not understand the nature or biology of trees and often have misconceptions about their growth.

Here are a few delusions that kill trees:

Misconception 1: The roots of a tree exist only under the crown, or within the limits where water flows from its branches.

Tree biology: The roots of trees, especially trees growing in the forest, grow well beyond the boundary of the zone where rainwater flows from their branches. Often the length of the roots is two to three times longer. Thus, during construction, paying attention only to the tree trunk, trying to keep equipment and trucks away from the latter, is not enough to prevent damage to the tree. Construction equipment and trucks will inevitably compact the soil in the root zone.

Misconception 2: Tree roots grow deep into the ground and are therefore protected.

Tree Biology: All roots need oxygen to survive. Heavy clay soil and soil compacted by vehicles contain very little oxygen, so the roots have to be in the upper layers of the soil to get the amount of oxygen necessary for survival. If the construction machinery has compacted the soil, then the air pores of the soil will be compacted in parallel, causing the existing roots to suffocate and eventually die or be damaged.

Misconception 3: Tree roots are woody and strong.

Biology of the tree: The roots closest to the trunk are really woody and strong, their task is to support the tree and fix its position. But the tree also has small, tender roots that provide it with most of the water and nutrients it needs to keep the tree healthy. These roots are on the outside of the entire root system of the tree.

Root damage during trenching

Operations such as digging holes, trenching, removing the top layer of soil near a tree can cause the tree to lose a critical amount of roots that feed it and not receive the amount of water and nutrients it needs to live.

Misconception 4: Damage done to the roots will be immediately noticeable.

Biology of a tree: Any tree stores the accumulated energy in its branches and trunks, and for the first time after damage to the roots, the tree will spend exactly this energy) and live off it. And perhaps only after two or three years it will become noticeable that the tree is withering. But even in a situation of severe root damage, a tree can last another five to ten years, after which the tree will die. By that time, the construction company that worked on this site and damaged the tree will be far away and no one will be held accountable. However, it is precisely when the disease state of a tree becomes noticeable that owners turn to garden centers with a request to “save their trees”.

Fact: Trunks and branches of trees are the really strong parts of a tree. You've no doubt seen bulldozer-scarred trunks and, of course, you've seen trees with branches broken by excavator booms—these trees will survive and live for a long time to come. Whereas trees whose root system has been severely damaged will gradually wither and, if left untreated, they will eventually die.

Conclusion: It is necessary to take certain measures to prevent possible damage to the tree before starting construction work. Do you want to see your tree healthy in the future? Therefore, before starting construction work on your site, we would advise you to contact a qualified specialist - dendrologist, arborist, garden center employee - for advice in order to protect your tree in case of upcoming construction work, as well as if you notice that the tree is unhealthy.

Measures to prevent damage to the roots. Here, a durable material was used for the fence, the fence outlines the “protection” zone of the tree (partially the area where the water flows is also captured here).

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