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When I was digging out* a patch to grow veggies earlier in the spring I found big roots in the soil unconnected to anything in our garden. It looks like they're coming from some kind of palm trees planted right at the edge of our neighbour's yard. They were so thick I couldn't break them with the spade so they're just lying there underneath the patch for now.

Now this spot where the neighbouring roots are is the spot that's best suited (with regard to sunlight and airflow) to growing veggies and herbs. Can I just claim the soil for our plants and chop away the neighbouring roots or would that be bad form? What would you do and why?

Now, if the neighbour's tree was something nice like a lemon tree I wouldn't even think of doing this, which suggests that the answer is not straightforward at all.

Note: We have not met this particular neighbour because their yard backs on to ours rather than being beside ours. Obviously part of the answer might be to talk to that neighbour, but I am looking for a gardening-informed answer rather than the political one!

(*) Our soil is very poor in every way, so this is a process I go through square metre by square metre adding compost, mulch and a little organic fertiliser in order to grow anything at all.

UPDATE: Adding pictures (click to enlarge) so you can see how precariously close not just the vege patch but a nectarine tree I planted at the end of winter and a few years old citrus are to the neighbouring palms (which by the way are towering at approx 5m+ high).

Palm is close to nectarine tree and vege patch Close-up of unearthed roots Palm is also close to citrus tree in foreground

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How do you feel about making some raised beds to grow your veggies in? What type of tree is it ie Is it shallow rooted or not? –  Mike Perry Sep 16 '11 at 4:15
    
@Mike Perry As to whether shallow rooted or not, it's a palm -- I don't know what kind but Adelaide is hot enough for the more cold-tolerant types to flourish. I haven't been able to find out what kind of root systems palms tend to have. Update: A quick direct google says palms are shallow rooted. –  Lisa Sep 16 '11 at 4:19
    
@Mike Perry I am not averse to using raised beds. The beds I've made are already raised a little anyway. Hopefully the palm root underneath it won't steal too many nutrients away but I'll bet it will guzzle the water away as we get into summer. –  Lisa Sep 16 '11 at 4:20
    
Oops! my bad I missed the "some kind of palm trees" part... I'm sorry to tell you this, but a shallow rooted tree will most definitely muscle its way into a nearby healthy soil environment & do its best to suck it dry... –  Mike Perry Sep 16 '11 at 4:37
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How far is it from the trees to your garden? –  Ed Staub Sep 16 '11 at 21:01

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

While I'm a big fan of raised beds in general, I don't think they're any kind of a solution here - the roots will just come up into the beds.

From what I've read, landscape fabric and cardboard don't stop tree roots.

We have Norway Maples "near" (40 feet from) our raised beds, and I have to dig a line around the outside of the beds down six inches with a pickax (and pruning saw) every year or two to keep them from taking over. And they do take over. Nothing grows well when they're in the garden. Norway Maples are pretty notorious for this - palms may be not as bad - or worse, for all I know.

Update

I just saw the pictures. I'd check the neighbor's yard, if possible, to make sure that it isn't something like a sea of concrete with islands of soil for the palms. Make sure the palms are likely to have lots of other area for roots.

There's nothing in the picture for scale, but it looks like the roots are well less than an inch. If so, I'd have no worries whatever about cutting them - especially if you:

  • cut them when you're likely to have rain for the next few months
  • cut them over multiple seasons if there are a really large number coming from one tree. Limit how much you cut to something like 4 to 6 square inches of root cross-section per tree. (That's not scientific - I'm just trying to communicate my musings.)

Caveat. I've never gardened in your climate, your soil, or with palms.

You might want to call these folks and see if they have anything useful to say or sell. In the U.S., I'd suggest that you contact your county agricultural extension service - I don't know if there's something equivalent in Australia.

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I am tempted to try burying a sheet of corrugated iron! –  Lisa Sep 19 '11 at 1:56
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@Lisa - see update above. I found some folks in the UK who sell "root barrier systems" - they're thick plastic. I can't find anything to say how deep they'd need to go for palms. I'd guess not very, but it's a poorly-educated guess. –  Ed Staub Sep 19 '11 at 13:08
    
Thanks. I'm marking yours as the answer because it will make me feel better about cutting my neighbour's roots. They have a very basic but professionally landscaped backyard. You know, standard square of lawn surrounded by low maintenance shrubs and these palms right at the back of their garden. They are very well established trees so I don't suppose trimming the roots gently would cause drastic consequences. I'll also do some more local research as you suggested. –  Lisa Sep 20 '11 at 0:34

I know I've recently listened to a Gardeners’ Question Time podcast where someone had a very! similar question to yours. I've tried to find the episode, but have failed miserably. Sorry.

Below is a mixture of what I can remember from that show and my own advice (for what that's worth):

  • Anything on your property, be it above or below ground, is technically yours to do with as you please (unless of course Australian law is different to UK law in that regard).

  • Personally, I wouldn't consider it "bad form" to remove above ground vegetation that strays into your property if it causes any kind of problem, issue...

  • I also wouldn't consider it "bad form" to remove any invasive below ground growth that causes or has the possibility to cause problems, issues eg Here I'm thinking of things like Bamboo.

  • I would consider it "bad form" to cut out a major section of tree roots, unless of course those roots were directly affecting something like the foundations of your home.

  • Regardless, "bad form" or not, I think the best thing you can do initially is engage your neighbour in conversation about their tree and the problem, issue the roots are causing on your property.

    • Best case scenario, your neighbour is understanding and willing to work with you to fix the problem.

    • Worst case scenario, your neighbour isn't understanding and basically ignores your concerns.

  • Depending on how that discussion goes, will determine how you move forward, your best course of action.

  • If the tree is in bad shape or approaching the end of its expected life span, it might make good sense just to remove the tree completely (of course this relies on your neighbour agreeing to that, seeing as the tree is on their property).

  • Personally, I wouldn't go about hacking out large sections of a tree's root system, doing so could have dramatic consequences eg The tree falls over (next time a strong wind comes through the area).

  • Seeing as you say, "Our soil is very poor in every way..." I think your better option would be to take the time to build some raised beds.

    • I recommend building 12inch (300mm) high (minimum) raised beds. 18 to 24inches (450 to 600mm) in your situation would be much better IMHO.

    • The higher the raised beds the better in your particular situation, as the tree roots will most definitely do their best to muscle their way into your healthy soil environment and suck it dry...

  • When putting raised beds in, keep the following information in mind:

    • As stated above, build them has high as possible.

    • Beds should be no wider than 4ft (1200mm), allows you to easily work the beds without stepping into them.

    • Beds can be a long as is practical.

    • Remove the top 4 to 6inches (100 to 150mm) of material from inside the beds.

    • In your case, it might be worth putting down a landscape fabric or a thick layer of cardboard.

    • Depending on how you construct the walls of the beds (material used), you might want to added some drainage holes just above the outside ground level.

    • If beds are going to be next to each other, leave enough space between them so you can work easily in each bed, 2ft (600mm) minimum gap. Mulch the space between the beds with wood-chips, they are cheap and make an ok! surface to work from.

    • Fill the beds with a 50/50 mixture of finely sieved top soil and high quality "organic" material (compost, leaf mold, etc). Add the material in 6inch (150mm) layers, "lightly" tamping down each layer as you go.


Hope the above helps and good luck talking with your neighbour :)

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I think the worst case for talking to the neighbor is a lot worse than "ignores your concerns". So if it's not a major section of tree roots, I wouldn't bring it up. If you were doing anything else there - putting in a pool, say - it probably wouldn't even come to mind - would it? –  Ed Staub Sep 16 '11 at 21:39
    
Thanks for the detailed response. It seems to me that I'm in a real bind here and removing the roots will be the only way to have a chance for the nectarine tree next to the vege patch (which I didn't think to mention earlier). –  Lisa Sep 19 '11 at 1:56
    
@Lisa What about the roots from your nectarine & citrus trees, or are those trees far enough away from your proposed veggie patch area not to be an issue/problem? If you really want the veggie patch in that precise area, I would definitely go with as deep raised beds as is practical/possible. Personally, I wouldn't get into the whole cutting tree roots thing (unless my actual property was in "structural" danger from those roots)... –  Mike Perry Sep 19 '11 at 19:15
    
@Mike yes you're right, but that tree has just been planted and won't get it's roots down properly this seasons (and this was to be a semi-temporary vege plot anyway). Now I am not really worried so much about the palm roots stealing from the vege patch, but from the nectarine tree. –  Lisa Sep 20 '11 at 0:30

As a fellow Aussie I know you have an easy answer to your legal rights: just call your local council and confirm with them that you have permission to cut roots from neighbours trees.

There are by-laws in councils to prevent you from harming trees. I know in our area it is any tree that is over 3 metres is basically a protected species. Not suggesting that you cutting these small roots would harm the tree, but the council's answer might be 'yes you can, provided the tree does not die'.

The other thing to consider; from memory and my recollection of AUS law, there is an area either side of fence which is common property, so if the roots are close to the fence you may also not be able to do anything about them even though they are technically on your side of the fence. Again, this is something to check with your local council.

Once you know where you stand with the council and have an understanding of where you are legally, then follow the advice in the other answers.

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I understand why the by-laws would prevent you from harming native species like gums, mallees, wattles, etc., but there's no way these palms are native to SA or could be defended on historical grounds. I'll just tread with care and due regard to how I'd feel if they were my palms though! –  Lisa Sep 20 '11 at 1:36
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@Lisa - On our local council site it actually lists which species are "pest" species e.g. a Liquidambar can be chopped down without a permit. –  xiaohouzi79 Sep 20 '11 at 1:52

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