Oops! My roots are showing, but it’s OK.
Exposed tree roots bother some people, but they are natural and important, at least to trees. Their roots don’t “come up” to the surface; they’re telling you they’ve got a problem growing deeper.
See, roots not only anchor plants and absorb water and dissolved nutrients but also need air to survive. And when soils are heavy clay or stay wet, air can’t penetrate very deep, so with the exception of aquatic or bog natives like cypress with specialized roots, most roots remain very shallow.
Also, as roots extend lengthwise they also grow in diameter, making them swell above ground. For a pretty graphic idea of this, stretch your arms straight out and wiggle your fingers. And imagine your shoulders being those roots you see on top of the ground beneath trees.
So it’s pretty natural. We don’t notice it so much in the woods where roots are usually buried in fallen leaves or covered with moss. But in home gardens they can be a bit off-putting, especially where there used to be grass but it’s now too shaded and the soil is too poor for grass to thrive.
No need to be alarmed or embarrassed. It happens even in botanic gardens worldwide, where roots are recognized as important tree parts. No big deal, just different than what we may have gotten used to.
Horticulturists and those in the know have found five practical approaches to handling this, each perfectly acceptable. You might find one or another, or a combination, to work for you. Burying the roots with topsoil, by the way, is not recommended because it’s a temporary fix that, if done too heavily, can suffocate roots.
Easiest approach is to make the area look deliberate. Set it apart from the rest of the yard with a distinct border — straight, curved, whatever suits you — between where grass grows and where it will not. This yin/yang effect is an instant visual cue; in most cases this is all you need to do. But you can distinguish the edge with bricks, rocks, monkey grass, large branches or just a shallow “border ditch.”
Accent the area with something bold that breaks the strong vertical/horizontal effect of flat ground and tree trunks. Could be a shade-loving shrub, or a bench, large urn or other light-colored focal feature.
You can then simply cover the roots with leaves and bark mulch, which work well and help feed the tree roots. When the leaves fall outside the area underneath the trees, simply rake or blow them back.
You can cover the area with a permeable paving of flagstone, crushed oyster shells, slate or the like. Bright evergreen moss is attractive and quite trendy, and all you need to do is rake or blow away autumn leaves and pull the occasional weed.
The most common long-range solution is to plant English ivy, Asiatic jasmine, mondo grass, Liriope or other low-growing shade-loving groundcover. You can use a combination of some of those, plus taller shade plants such as aspidistra (cast iron plant) and evergreen holly fern.
This may take time; keep in mind the old horticultural saying about groundcovers and vines: “First year they sleep, second year they creep, third year they leap.” And by the way, ivy growing on trees is not a big deal to the trees. Really.
Another approach, often used in botanic gardens, is to simply highlight the roots as part of the artistry of nature. Tuck a small plant here or there, and just let them be.
Exposed tree roots are worth celebrating.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to email@example.com.
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