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Understanding a tree's root system

The key to maintaining a healthy tree is having a strong, durable root system. To create a fortified root system, diagnosing potential problems and preventing them is essential. Avoid these issues altogether by studying up on roots and the best ways to keep them flourishing. J.M. Sillick and W.R. Jacobs from Colorado State University provide the following tips about healthy roots and trees.

The Nitty Gritty on Roots

There are a variety of roots that make up a tree root system. There are both large perennial roots and smaller feeder roots. The larger roots and their main branches will increase in size and grow horizontally. Feeder roots are typically 1/16-inch in diameter, but compose the majority of the root system’s surface area. These grow outward and upward from the large roots toward the soil surface. 
 
The feeder roots play an important role in tree development because they absorb water and minerals. They die and are replaced regularly, whereas the large roots provide anchorage to the tree and are firm in place for a long time.
 
Growing Your Strongest Tree Roots
 
Roots grow best when there is an abundant amount of minerals, oxygen, and water in the soil. Soil temperature and soil compaction can affect the tree growth as well. Soil compaction is when there is a reduction in air pockets resulting from soil particles being packed together. 
 
As the depth of the tree roots increases, the likelihood for soil compaction also increases, meanwhile other important elements, like the availability of water, minerals, oxygen, soil temperature all decrease. Soil compaction ultimately limits root growth.
 
Avoiding Injury and Disease
 
The key to preventing root injury and disease is knowing your species of tree. Different diseases choose different trees as their target. Study up on the relevant disease for your tree.
 
There are a few symptoms of root disease to look out for. Small yellow foliage, reduced growth, branch dieback, and scorched leaves are all among some of the telltale signs of root illness. Two types of fungi will be your main perpetrators for disease. One type kills feeder roots and another causes decay in the larger roots. You’ll find the majority of disease opt to attack the small feeder roots. The will break down the feeder roots, thus reducing the tree’s mineral- and water-absorbing capabilities. When fungi attack the large roots, it suppresses growth, reduces food storage, and reduces the structural support system for the tree.
 
Injury is also common to roots. One of the biggest killers is soil compaction. Many times, the addition of roads, foot traffic, construction machinery, and livestock can cause stress to the tree roots.  Improper use of herbicides, over- and underwater, incorrect fertilization, digging and trenching, and the use of chemicals can drastically harm roots.
 
The best environment to grow a healthy root system is simply an environment with ample growing space for the roots. You will also want sufficient water and oxygen. Check the water and soil condition of your roots by digging a hole outside the drip line (the outermost circumference of a tree canopy where water drips from and onto the ground) of a tree. This way you can check to see if the soil is wet, dry, or compacted. If you have trouble getting the shovel into the ground to dig, it’s a sign that your soil is too dry.
 
Frequent, light waterings actually aren’t as beneficial as long, deep waterings over the entire root system. If you are experience a dry winter in your area, a good watering once a month may help maintain the root’s health and longevity. 
 
If you find that your tree roots are still severely damaged after all these precautions, it is best to remove it. A weak tree can be a nasty liability, especially if a strong storm sweeps in.
 
Visit www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/02926.html for more information on taking the best care of your tree’s roots.
 

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