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David Beaulieu

Tree Roots: What's Going on Down There?

By January 19, 2013

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We have many expressions in everyday life alluding to the fact that superficial knowledge often isn't enough. Thus we're exhorted to:

  • "Get to the bottom of it"
  • "Dig deeper"
  • "Get to the root of it"
  • "Unearth new details"
  • "Gain a deeper knowledge of it"

All of these metaphorical expressions attest to our justifiable discomfort with restricting our investigations to the surface. Indeed, how little we truly know about the health of our own bodies, for example, in cases where all our knowledge is based only on what we can see. Nor is this observation restricted to the physical world. It's difficult to make sense of the present without investigating our roots in the past. Thus the famous George Santayana quote: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

I receive many questions from readers regarding tree roots. It's so hard to know what's going on down there, because we're usually treated only to fleeting glimpses of this vast underworld. But we do not truly know much about the trees in our yard unless we understand their root systems; "surface knowledge" just isn't sufficient.

Unhappily, the difficulty of ascertaining what's going on down there is often used as an excuse to adopt a landscaping policy whereby "ignorance is bliss." Would that it were that simple. But ignoring an issue doesn't make it go away. For example, is it safe to put soil over tree roots? If it were safe, that sure would be convenient for a homeowner looking to do some planting beneath a tree. But nature doesn't operate based on what's convenient for us.

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