Girdling Roots

IMG_00792.jpg Most planted trees in the Austin area are container grown trees. Most container grown trees develop girdling roots. If you’ve planted a tree, there is a good chance this is going to be an issue for your tree. Girdling roots are a serious problem. The end result is the tree literally choking itself. Tree death is the typical result from severely girdling roots. Even if your tree is lucky enough to survive, overall health and vigor will be poor. Behind construction and weed-n-feed damage, this is probably the third most prevalent and serious tree issue I run into out in the field (especially for transplanted trees). The picture to the left shows a typical looking girdling root. Keep in mind these aren’t always visible from surface level. Sometimes you have to dig down to find them.

What is a Girdling Root?

Girdling roots develop from trees living their first number of years in a container. The confined nature of a container forces roots to grow around in a circle instead of outward. As the tree grows, the girdling roots do not move further away; they only grow in diameter becoming a more substantial root. As the tree trunk grows in diameter, there comes a point where the root is choking or girdling the trunk.


These pictures show several different scenarios where I have found girdling roots in trees. As you can see; they can look different in varying scenarios.

The only thing you can do for a girdling root is prune it out. Sometimes this means pruning a very large root and risks the tree dying. But, if you leave the root, the tree will definitely die prematurely. Pruning gives the tree a chance.

How to Fix Girdling Roots


These two pictures to the left show a before and after of a tree where we removed some small girdling roots. The only thing you can do for a girdling root is prune it out. Sometimes this means pruning a very large root and risks the tree dying. But, if you leave the root, the tree will definitely die prematurely. Pruning gives the tree a chance. You’d be surprised how much root pruning a tree can tolerate. It has been my experience that many people think that pruning the smallest root means sure death of the tree. The reality is that trees can tolerate root pruning much in the same way they tolerate branch pruning. We routinely prune up to 4″ diameter roots right at the trunk of trees with little or no signs of stress in the tree. The roots we’ve pruned in these before and after photos will result in nearly zero stress to the tree; without pruning them away the tree would have had major structural defects in 5-10 years and potentially some major canopy dieback. I recommend that any transplanted tree be inspected for girdling roots about 5 years after it is planted. This amount of time allows the tree’s roots to become established and healthy enough to tolerate any necessary pruning. An air spade is the best tool for such exploratory excavation around the trees root crown.

Planting Trees

One of the fundamental steps in tree planting we call “tickling the root ball”. This is the process of tearing up the roots around the edge of the ball. This does two things. It “reduces” girdling roots and stimulates root growth. It is important to understand that tickling the root ball does not eliminate the possibility of girdling roots. You should still plan to excavate the root flares of your new tree a few years after planting to inspect for and prune away any girdling roots.

7 thoughts on “Girdling Roots”

  1. It’s nice to read that you can prune up to 4inch roots without much problem. I was concerned when I pruned a 1.5inch girdled root on one of our maples. When I cut it it released like a spring. I swear I heard the tree gasp a sigh of relief when I did that! 🙂

  2. I’d like to share a product that Pro Arbor has found to optimize the trajectory of the roots of transplanted trees. The Rootwell aeration tube optimizes soil conditions at a deeper depth, which encourages diving roots, thus preventing girdling roots.

    1. I haven’t checked out this product, so I can’t speak intelligently to its net benefit on trees. However, I’m doubtful it has any impact on girdling root issues. Those problems develop while the tree is in the container, not after it has been planted.

  3. Really sick tree, and I’m afraid of removing the girdled root. How would you advise on this one (link attached is of the tree, root exposed).? I finally found a arborist wiling to remove, should he take the part grown into the tree, or just sever away from the trunk? That arborist does plan to deep feed, and I have already started organic ground treatement with foliage sprays.

  4. My husband & I have just moved to Texas from N.C. We just bought a house and we love gardnering . We have 2 questios. NUMBER 1)… Is it two late to plant anything this year? Like daffodil bulbs etc. NUMBER 2)…It seems like the previous owners planted two Crepe Mrytle Trees too close to the house and they are reaching about 24 or more feet. They do not get full sun and these two are in the front of the house. According to the Inspector they are so close to the house they are rubbing up against the roof casuing some damage. Do we cut them back or remove them and plant a very small ornamental tree more suitable for the amount of sun requirements? AND I guess I have a 3rd QUESTION. In the back of the yard they planted several white blooming Crepe Mryles but they are almost in full shade under either our large Oak Trees or the Neighbors. Do we leave them or plant some other ornamental trees that enjoy shade. We have a pool in the backyard and all I can think of is the previous owners planted trees that would not cover the water in the pool completely in the summer time. I love the bark on the Crepe Mryle Trees and the blooms but they really are not blooming that well due to the decrease in the amt. of sun the get per day. I also wanted to turn our yard into a butterfly and hummingbird garden as much as possible. There is a small Floribuna Rose in the front yard and it has bloom well this season so we must get enough afternoon sun (from 12 noon until sunset) where the Crepe Myrtles are. Thanks. Bonnie

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