Digging for a Brick Patio

movinginva(Zone 7)March 24, 2012

Soooo, we began digging for our brick patio, but since there is a large mature tree close, there are roots everywhere, and I am starting to worry that we will be chopping through roots the whole way. I am also worried that chopping through the roots (if we can even get through it) will completely damage the tree. I had done some research, and from what I found, it is okay to excavate some of the roots. Is there an easier way to dig the roots? Is there a piece of machinery that can be used to loosen up the soil and cut the roots? We were thinking a ditch witch may help with our problem. Any advice will be appreciated. Thanks!

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I don't think a ditchwitch will help you. Even a Bobcat would get hung up on big roots. Roots can be tricky to work in. A stump grinder would probably do the trick, but that's a more difficult than average piece of equipment to come by. While you're hand working it, I'd start by excavating at the patio outer limit on the tree side first. Dig what can be dug and cut roots that are in the way with a pruning saw (which might become dulled in the process, but chalk that up to the cost of doing the project. One of those 10" blade folding pruning saws by Corona works well for this.) If you make sure this end of the roots are cut, as you can free roots up by digging them out, the other end of the roots will offer less resistance. I've done things like this and in the beginning it seems like an impossible task, but as some of the worst offending roots are dealt with, it starts to get easier and eventually, the impossible becomes accomplished.

Since root s grow full circle around the tree, imagine how many roots it has that will remain completely untouched. You're disturbing a relatively much smaller amount so I don't think you need to worry about the tree.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 1:34PM
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movinginva(Zone 7)

Thanks @yardvaark. I started to get worried, and a bit frustrated there for a moment. We will keep on digging!

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 2:17PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I have to say I can't believe none of us thought to mention tree roots in the planning phase. You didn't show the whole property, but enough that it should have been evident to us all that the roots would be an issue for a paver installation. For myself, I apologize, especially because I even thought to mention roots in your home dec thread! It looked to me like enough space for a patio, and I sort of parked the thought with the hope that the tree was not a surface rooter.

There are three options. One is to revert to a deck rather than a paver patio, but you already have your material, I think.

The other is to lay your patio high - instead of digging down too much, excavate only as much as is comfortable, put sand and then pavers. This doesn't leave you depth for a proper crush layer, but to be honest I think frost heave will be less a problem than eventual root heave, so more on that in a minute.

The third is to do as Yardvaark is suggesting - dig and cut, dig and cut.

Two issues arise. One is that it is no use pretending that you don't affect the stability of the tree if you cut big roots (small ones are likely fine), so I would step back and have a look at the size of the tree relative to the size of the house and just think hard about gravity. I don't seriously think the tree will immediately fall, but it may become more vulnerable in extreme weather. Not sure what your long term plans are for the tree in any case.

The other issue is related.... and has to do with root growth. Like the canopy of the tree, the roots grow continuously for the life of the tree. This means that even if you cut roots, they will regrow so in time the stability will likely be re-established. BUT as to where they will grow... roots like it where it is cool and damp. That is what it will be under your patio. So you will have roots eventually pushing the patio stones up, probably no matter how deep they are laid.

How big are your stones, again?

Karin L
PS: Lee Valley sells pruning saws with replaceable blades... maybe other suppliers do too. That way you keep the handle, just have to replace the blades as you wear them out.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 2:24PM
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movinginva(Zone 7)

@karinl, the bricks are 4"x8" and I have already purchased them.

I live in SE Virginia, so we do get some severe storms and if cutting the roots will affect the stability of the tree, then I am worried about the tree potentially falling on the house. I am also worried about the roots growing back and affecting the stability of the pavers. If we were to cut the roots, how quickly will they grow back and potentially affect the patio - I would hate to have to redo the patio every year or two. The tree sits about seven feet from the proposed edge of the patio and I planned on keeping the tree.

Because we are in SE Virginia, and we do not have a great deal of freezing and thawing, nor do I have drainage issues since the yard is well graded, I figured that I would not have to dig too deep in order to lay the base, so any deeper roots will remain and help keep the tree in tact.

I would much prefer a paver patio, but if it comes to it, I will live with a floating deck and sell the bricks that I have already purchased.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 3:03PM
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natal(Louisiana 8b)

Mature trees are priceless! If the patio area has to go in the front yard I'd do some research on a deck.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 6:44PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

It's been a frequent refrain on the forum here that in landscaping, the answer is almost always "it depends."

In this case, so much depends on what you see on the ground. As Yardvaark points out, you can look at the full circumference of the roots and you probably will be leaving a lot of them untouched. You have to assess what you are cutting against what you are leaving. So it depends on how big and how deep those roots actually are that are in your way, and whether plenty of roots go the other way.

It also depends what kind of tree it is. Different trees have different root structures. You could ask on the tree forum to help identify it if you don't already know what it is, and for advice about whether to worry about cutting the roots and the likely response by the tree.

Small bricks in this kind of a setting have both an advantage and a disadvantage over bigger ones. Bigger ones don't get pushed up as readily, but are also harder to level to begin with and in the event of having to smooth things out. So your patio may get a touch bumpy over the years, but I think it will take longer than a year or two.

7 feet is a pretty good distance and I actually think the chances of doing real damage is pretty remote. But having forgotten to mention it in the first place, I don't want to have neglected to be thorough in answering now.

Roots follow water and good soil. I am not a tree expert but I think that if you give the tree roots in the other directions enough to feed them, they might be less avid in chasing the moisture they find under your patio.

So from me, consider yourself cautioned, but not discouraged, especially since I can't see what you're dealing with and it may be totally insignificant. I will say that a deck has many disadvantages relative to a patio, so I'd go with the second option I mentioned above - laying the bricks higher to limit the root damage you have to do - before I'd go with a deck.

Karin L

    Bookmark   March 24, 2012 at 7:20PM
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As I view your picture, you're patio area occurs in about 1/8 of the full circle of space around the tree. You're not right up against the trunk, taking all of that 1/8 of the roots, you're back away taking only a portion of them. You're not digging down two and three feet removing that full portion, but just skimming a few inches (6"-8"?) off the top. Over the years I have seen much more brutal attacks on trees than this, yet the vast majority survive, acting like they could care less. There's no one who can give you a definitive answer about how the tree will react anymore than a doctor will guarantee what happens to you as the result of an appendectomy. But people do what you're doing all the time and often times much closer to trees than you are, without ill consequences to the neighboring trees. I would not worry about it. I would not worry about the roots damaging the patio either. You're far enough away that any damage is likely to be minor and years away and the tree, which looks like a silver maple (known to have relatively short, messy lives) may die of old age first. It's far more important that you construct the patio correctly if you expect it to be nice and expect it to last.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2012 at 12:59AM
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movinginva(Zone 7)

After reading your responses and some other information about trees etc. and posting on the 'Trees' forum, I decided to take my chances and dig. I know that I will not be happy with a floating deck, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that the tree survives this. We did not get anything done yesterday since it rained most of the day, but today it was nice and cool, so we are about half way done. We did come upon some roots, but not as many and none as large as I thought we would.

Thank you all so very much for your help!

    Bookmark   March 25, 2012 at 4:48PM
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