Problem with tree roots
May 11, 2014 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Surface roots from our silver maple are making our backyard unusable. Can we do anything about it?

We have a 35 year old silver maple in our backyard. We love the tree because it provides summer shade for the house, a place for kid swings, and all the other great tree reasons. However this tree has slowly developed surface roots that make backyard life much harder. It is literally impossible to walk around the tree barefoot (painful!) and not much better with shoes on. The roots trip my kids, then they fall ON the roots.

I'm looking for solutions, arborial and otherwise. It's my understanding that adding fill (topsoil) on top of the roots is a big no-no because it harms the tree. I don't have much hope but perhaps some MeFite knows a solution. I'm also open to other approaches like building a deck over some of the area.

Thanks everybody!
posted by werkzeuger to Home & Garden (10 answers total)
I'd say that your most aesthetically pleasing option is a deck, but in the meantime, perhaps covering it with plastic or fencing it off (even just with visible stakes that just provide a "warning track") will at least keep people from injuring themselves.
posted by Etrigan at 7:17 AM on May 11, 2014

Yeah that's one of the reasons why they are bad trees. Also make sure you have someone look at it regularly if it is close enough to structures to impact them if you have a limb fall. As well make sure there aren't any pipes Near the tree.

The only option is to consider root pruning but I suspect you'll find the roots are too big for that.

Really the solution is to tear the tree down and replace it with a better species.
posted by JPD at 8:05 AM on May 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh you could put fill over it no problem. It'll just be a temporary solution. Fill nearer to the trunk is the thing to be avoided.
posted by JPD at 8:07 AM on May 11, 2014

Surface roots are what maples do. If you put topsoil over the roots, and they don't kill the tree outright, the roots will just grow up into the new soil. Maybe mulch will help.
posted by mr vino at 8:14 AM on May 11, 2014

Best answer: I would go ahead and add fill. It has its pros and cons as outlined here. But, a silver maple is a fast-growing tree, which puts in the category of trees less likely to be harmed by fill. Just don't pile up fill against the lower part of the tree trunk. Instead, create a circle of stones 2-3 feet out from the base of the tree and don't touch the soil within that circle, just build up outside the circle. The natural habitat of silver maples is the alluvial plane area at the sides of rivers, or swampy areas near ponds, where natural deposits of additional fill, or removal of fill by erosion, are common. So they can handle it. I see silver maples in Southern Vermont that are often flooded for weeks up to three feet in the spring, or that grow on sandy islands in the river where the soil level is always shifting around.

A longer term problem with silver maples is that they can grow to be huge, but they are kind of brittle, so you don't want them to start overhanging your house where a big branch can come off and fall on your roof. But that might not be an issue for another 35 years.
posted by beagle at 8:16 AM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love trees, but Silver Maples are essentially just big weeds. I realize we have become a very short time horizon species and cutting down the tree and planting a true long term winner is likely out of the question, but hopefully if you're ever in a position to plant new trees, you'll remember the lesson demonstrated here.
posted by fairmettle at 8:42 AM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Personally I'd live with it until the branches got too close to the house for my comfort, and maybe build a deck, but silver maples do make great firewood because the wood dries very quickly...
posted by jon1270 at 9:14 AM on May 11, 2014

If you decide to keep the tree, I think your best solution would be a raised deck, maybe something like this. You can leave small slits between the planks in the deck to allow rain to come through to nourish your tree. You could also use Roundup or similar to clear the grass under the deck if you feel that would be easier for maintenance (I doubt you are able to do much mowing right now with those roots as they are).

You could use wood for your deck (you'll have to stain and weatherproof it), or opt for something like Trex (Low maintenance, easy to clean and durable) or even Ikea tiles, though as you will have to build a more robust support system for that last option it would likely end up a costing the most in terms of time, money and effort.
posted by misha at 9:40 AM on May 11, 2014

Just coming back to say that the "silver maples are weeds" thing kind of maligns the tree. Planted in a proper location and allowed to assume and keep its natural shape, it can produce specimens that are long-lasting and attractive, providing lots of good shade. Essentially, they will need a 50-75 foot circle of clear space around them. Picture.
posted by beagle at 10:05 AM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the insightful comments. I always appreciate the education I get here.
posted by werkzeuger at 5:08 PM on May 11, 2014

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