Hardscaping around shallow tree roots

exxpiJuly 12, 2014

We have heavy clay soil and a well-established tree near a fenceline with many exposed roots, and I'm sure many shallow ones that we don't see as well.

We want to build some brick raised beds along this fence and around the tree. We know not to build a raised bed directly around or against the tree, and instead wanted to build a 4-6 foot brick ring around the trunk and fill it with large river rocks to allow it to breathe and still tie in to our raised beds along the fence.

For most hardscapes, you generally dig 8-12" down, lay a course of gravel, sand, and then your brick.

Given all the roots, this wouldn't really be possible without seriously risking hurting the tree. Are there alternatives to making structurally sound hardscape footings/foundations which can go on top of shallow roots?

We haven't finalized a design, and we will keep in mind that shallow and exposed roots need to maintain their access to oxygen and water. What are some of our options to keep the tree happy and also have aesthetically pleasing hardscape planters?

In short: how can I make structurally sound hardscape around shallow and/or exposed roots without damaging the tree? Or is this generally not possible?

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Please back up with the camera and show a wider view photo, including space around the area.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2014 at 9:36PM
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Here is a pic of more of the fenceline. You can't see them in the picture, but there are visible roots (maybe 3" diameter max) up to about 3 feet out from the trunk. After that they are sparse and not very large.

Also, if this is helpful, the neighboring yard on the other side of the fence is down a small ~4' slope, which begins right at the fenceline.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2014 at 10:18PM
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Why don't you sketch out a plan view of your proposal so it can be better understood? It's also not good to build a raised bed up against a fence, so not sure how you're dealing with that. 4' to 6' diameter circle around the tree would be too close. The tree would destroy your work in not too much time. Also, it wouldn't be a good idea to heap a deep layer of stone mulch around the trunk. What are the beds for and why must they be raised? I think it complicates your project much.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2014 at 8:57AM
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Thanks, I will work on a sketchup layout of what we are wanting to do but it sounds like it's not very feasible or practical from what you are saying.

We would likely be planting partial shade flowers or low water plants in the beds and are wanting to do it with hardscape mostly for aesthetic reasons, since our back yard is pretty unsightly and chaotic right now.

Why are raised brick planters a no-go along the fence? Same for large river rock near the trunk? Would it still cause moisture and rot issues on the trunk?

Thanks for the insight, however I'm still wondering what the standard practice is for hardscaping areas with shallow roots near trees. I know I've seen it done, out driving around, but maybe it was incorrectly done or shouldn't have been.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2014 at 12:36PM
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Of course it depends on many factors, but surprisingly, rocks can stay moist for some time if there is depth to them. It's not the way trees grow naturally, so no reason to think deep rock mulch around their trunks is beneficial. I cannot prove to you that it is harmful ... just that it's not natural and normal. The generally accepted advice on mulch is not to create depth of it right at the trunk.

If you build a masonry structure very close to a fence, it will keep the wood between the two moist longer and it will rot sooner. It will also create a gap between the two that is basically, unmaintainable ... difficult to remove things from between them.

What causes you to think that raised planters next to fence are the solution? It seems like there must be other easier, less expensive and just as attractive solutions.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2014 at 4:22PM
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That all makes sense. I am not committed to hardscape but I very much like the look of it and once it's done it is easy to maintain. Barring raised beds, what options are there to work around the large shallow roots?

In addition to this fence there is also a 4-5' slope to the right which we were hoping to terrace or hardscape as well, and the planters would have tied in nicely. The same question applies to that slope though.

There are 2 large trees on the slope with large and some exposed or shallow roots. Any ways around that? I've looked around online for ideas, like on pinterest but honestly did not see a whole lot that I liked which didn't feature terracing of some sort, and am curious to how that would have been accomplished without hurting the trees.

Thanks for the advice so far.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2014 at 4:55PM
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I would not hard scape around that tree. It will ruin the fence and possibly rot the tree at the base. Someone across the road from us tried to spruce up a tree base and it retained too much water causing the tree to simply tip right over. Fortunately down the hill and not on their house it was next to. It was not a small tree either. You could define a border around the tree with something loose and airy. Mexican beach pebbles or big redwood chips but not fill it in with anything over the roots. Check for too much water retention. I spray fence wood that hits soil with water seal after staining which has worked okay. We are in the woods. Its damp In the winter.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2014 at 7:28PM
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Is there any way that you can show what you are planning? Then maybe you could get suggestions that build on it.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2014 at 9:20PM
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You need some shallow stepped beds or terracing down the slope for erosion control before you worry about the flat part.

"what the standard practice is for hardscaping areas with shallow roots near tree"

You avoid doing it. Either the tree roots destroy the hardscape or the hardscape kills the tree. It doesn't happen immediately, which is why you see it, but it's almost certain to happen. If you were starting from scratch, there are "polite" trees that don't throw out surface roots, but you want to keep the tree.

Same with raised beds/planters on house wall or fence, unless you do some extraordinary waterproofing. Rot is inevitable.

So ... what to do to improve the livability of that area? Because that's the real question.

I would put a "floating deck" around the base of the tree, made with modular wood pallets resting on concrete pavers at the corners so you can clean under it occasionally and enjoy the shade of the tree. Outdoor living area big enough for a couple of chairs and a bistro table, or bigger. If you go modular you can increase size by adding more modules.

And make raised beds - away from the fence and with one side high enough to have a sittable edge - at the borders of the floating deck. If you put them between the deck and the house you would have a sense of privacy. And seating!

kinda like these:


    Bookmark   July 14, 2014 at 8:52AM
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Thanks everyone.
@lazygardens: floating deck is an interesting idea I had not thought of, maybe I'll tinker with some designs for that.

We considered taking the tree down and planting a new one that would accommodate our plans better but I hated the idea of bringing down such a well established tree.

I am working on a Google sketchup layout of our yard and I will post another thread for suggestions once that is complete.

Thanks again all!

    Bookmark   July 14, 2014 at 11:38AM
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