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What Are Girdling Roots?

June 24, 2021

The roots of a tree are vital to the health and appearance of that tree. Roots provide nutrients, water, stability, and more to keep trees alive and healthy, and any issues that negatively affect roots, in turn, affect trees. Girdling roots is one of the most common issues that trees in urban environments run into and can be a serious problem if left untreated. Below we discuss what root girdling is, what the signs are, and what you can do.

What Are Girdling Roots?

Girdling roots occur when the tree roots circle and coil around the base of the trunk rather than spreading outwards. Think about the effect of wearing a belt that is too tight around your waist and you get the idea of what tree roots do when girdled. Girdling restricts the flow of water and nutrients to the tree, making the tree weaker and more unstable. While maple and linden trees seem the most susceptible, girdling can happen to nearly any tree.

What Causes Root Girdling?

Girdling roots are a common problem for trees in urban environments due to the factors those trees face that trees in nature avoid and those issues are related to a lack of space for proper root growth. Improper planting or transplanting is a significant cause of root girdling. If a tree is in a container or burlap for too long, the roots will eventually circle the trunk or container. If those roots are also not loosened during the planting process, the roots become girdled.

Backyard with trees and maintained landscape | Girdling Roots | Burkholder Brothers

The same issue can occur when a tree is planted in a hole that is too small: the roots have nowhere to spread and need to encircle the tree to maintain growth, which leads to girdling roots. Pieces of the planting container or other debris in the planting hole can also cause girdling. Heavily compacted soil and proximity to foundations, curbs, and other obstructions (which can hinder root growth) are common causes for root girdling. So because the issue is happening to the roots, you might think that spotting signs of root girdling could be difficult.

Front yard of house with trees and maintained landscape | Girdling Roots | Burkholder Brothers

Signs of Root Girdling

Spotting root girdling is relatively easy, as plenty of signs can indicate that a tree has girdled roots. The most obvious sign is an abnormal trunk flare. A tree trunk typically flares out and widens at the ground, but if a tree has girdled roots, the trunk may appear straight or narrow, looking more similar to a telephone pole than a tree. Roots circling above the soil line may also indicate girdling, as can sunscald or frost cracks visible on the trunk.

Because girdling roots prevent trees from getting enough water and nutrients, other possible signs include the following:

  • Thin or sparse canopy
  • Die-back in the upper tree canopy
  • Wilting, scorched, off-colored (yellow), or smaller than average leaves
  • Early fall color and leaf drop

What You Can Do About Girdling Roots

The best solution for treating root girdling in your trees is to contact a landscape professional. Girdled roots can be removed, but removing them yourself may cause damage to the main stem. An experienced plant health care professional or certified arborist will know the proper technique to minimize damage. In severe cases, girdling compromises a tree’s stability, and as a result, the tree may need to be removed. Preventing root girdling involves knowing the best planting methods, from digging the right sized hole to knowing where to mulch, all of which plant health care professionals know.

Contact Burkholder for Landscape & Plant Care

If you want to keep your trees healthy and prevent girdling roots, contact Burkholder. We offer many landscaping services such as plant health care, irrigation, landscape design, and more. Our passionate team of landscape professionals has years of experience designing and maintaining refined landscapes in the Main Line area. For more information about our services, request a free consultation today.