I received some bad advice from a neighbor and now I want to know how much damage did I do and also ask for some advice on what I can do to help ensure the tree doesn’t die. I live in NC and have about a 20 foot red maple tree (I think that’s what tree it is) in my front yard. The surface roots were getting really bad in some areas, growing near my house and sidewalks. I counted about 8 surface roots that it had. After getting the bad advice, I ended up cutting 4 of them about 2 feet from the base of the tree. 2 of them were almost 4 inches in diameter and the tree itself is 6 inches in diameter. Did I kill my tree or can it be saved? And advice on what I can do to help the tree? Or did I just kill it? Thanks for any help and I just wish I would of gotten on here before I cut them :(.
I would suggest you prune heavily ASAP; care not to prune more than say 15% of the tree and follow the 'three cut method' if you take any major branches.
Personally, I am somewhat worried about this tree. Based on the pictures you have posted I can see that it is leaning in towards your house and you just so happened to have cut two roots that were helping to keep it from falling in that general direction.
That being said, the tree is still a very young and from the looks of it its a healthy soft maple. Maple tree's in general have very shallow root systems and it is for that reason that it had so many roots above the surface.
I may be biased because I have seen one to many trees fall into a house only to find out the home owner was told years pryor to deal with it and simply ignored the advice. So I will give you the advice and you can choose to accept it or not:
Go buy yourself about three large u-channel posts. I would place them in a semi-circle around the tree on the street side. Go buy some durable rope and a small gardening hose. Do you get where I am going with this? I believe you need to brace that tree over the next few years. Brace it long enough such that when you place a level on the tree (side facing your house) the level shows true without any bracing (maybe even a slight lean towards the street).
"I've seen the needle and the damage done A little part of it in everyone But every junkie's like a settin' sun" Neil Young
Colin is right the tree is probably going to live; damage done, no use crying over split milk. For future reference, surface roots can be dealt with but it takes a lot of effort on your part. You need to dig them out and bury them a bit deeper. Keeping in mind of course that normally (not so much with maple) surface roots are there because the tree needs them there. So it is often the case with other trees (again not really with maple) that these roots should be left alone or dug out a bit if anything.
Thanks for the photos, they help a lot. First a word of reassurance, the situation is not as dire as it seems.
Frankly, the tree root system is a bit of a muddle. You can see how the roots are crossing each other and how there has been mechanical damage to some of the roots. Perhaps by a mower or even heavy boots. But the tree looks green and healthy and likely there are many more roots not visible to us that are supporting the tree and its metabolism.
Cutting major roots will unbalance the tree system. Assuming it was in balance before, with X amount of root volume happily supporting X amount of branch and leaf. With the roots gone suddenly the canopy, now larger than the root delivery system, will be looking for supplies and not get them in quite the volume that it is expecting. Fortunately this is getting quite far into summer so the growth spurt is over and it is just in maintenance mode right now waiting for fall. Earlier in spring you might have seen some foliage die back but this late perhaps not.
In a comment Rob suggests trimming. This is a good idea, it would help restore the balance between root volume and canopy. The tricky thing is to assess how much root has gone. If we knew then that would be a starting point for how much canopy has to come off. The tree looks quite dense and probably could be thinned out. But take care not to remove too much.
Personally I don't think the tree will suffer too much if you don't do anything; but no doubt you will get other opinions and suggestions and the final action will be yours. Your tree is fine, but the muddle of roots will eventually shorten its life. It's a good lesson for aspiring tree planters.
Edit: the extra photo shows that the tree is as yet not large enough to do very much damage even if it does fall. I found an interesting site with some further details about shallow roots you might take into account.
Rob has given you some sound feedback; if you are really concerned then call a reputable tree person.