Understanding Root Barrier Systems: A Key to Landscape Preservation

In urban and suburban landscapes, controlling tree root growth is essential. Root barriers are devices made from robust materials like plastic or metal that are installed vertically in the soil to either redirect or restrict the growth of roots. The use of root barriers for tree roots in these systems plays a key role in preventing potential damage to nearby structures and infrastructure.

Root barriers serve a couple of different purposes. They play a crucial role in protecting building foundations from the pressure of growing tree roots, which can cause structural damage. They are also vital for preserving the integrity of sidewalks, driveways, and underground utilities by preventing roots from causing blockages and leaks.

Furthermore, these systems are instrumental in landscape management. They help maintain the aesthetic and functional aspects of landscapes by controlling root growth, thus preventing interference with other landscape elements. From an environmental sustainability standpoint, root barriers also aid in controlling invasive tree species, thereby preserving local biodiversity.

Despite their benefits, the challenges posed by uncontrolled root growth in urban landscapes are significant. Invasive tree roots can damage foundations, walkways, driveways, and underground utilities, leading to costly repairs and maintenance issues, and disrupting the ecological balance.

Understanding Root Barrier Systems

Root barriers are specialized underground structures designed to control the growth of tree roots. They serve a vital role in urban and suburban landscapes, where uncontrolled root growth can cause damage to buildings, sidewalks, and other infrastructures. By being installed in the ground, these barriers redirect or restrict root growth, thus protecting structures and other plants. They are often made of durable materials like plastic or metal, and are installed vertically into the soil. Root barriers are not just for protecting structures; they are also used for soil moisture preservation, thereby playing a critical role in maintaining the ecological balance​​​​.

Types of Root Barriers

Mechanical Barriers: 

These are typically made from materials like plastic, metal, or sometimes fabric, and are installed to physically block or redirect root growth. They are tailored to various needs, coming in different sizes and forms like panels or rolls, making them adaptable for different tree types and landscape settings​​​​​​.

Chemical Barriers: 

These barriers incorporate chemicals that inhibit root growth. Usually made from fabric coated with a growth-inhibiting substance, they effectively control the entire root system. However, their effectiveness may diminish over time, especially in conditions with higher soil temperature and moisture​​.

Biological Barriers: 

This method involves using plants themselves as natural barriers. Certain species can act as a living barrier, controlling the growth of surrounding plant roots through natural processes. This approach is less common and requires careful selection of plant species based on their growth characteristics and compatibility with the surrounding environment​​.

Advantages and Disadvantages


  • Reduced Maintenance Costs: By preventing root intrusion, root barriers can save property owners substantial expenses in maintenance and repairs related to foundational and infrastructural damage​​.
  • Flexibility: Root barriers are available in various materials and sizes, allowing customization to fit specific landscape and tree types​​.
  • Environmental Preservation: They help maintain a balance between urban development and nature, allowing trees to thrive without causing damage​​.


  • Initial Installation Costs: The upfront cost of high-quality root barriers, along with professional installation fees, can be significant​​.
  • Potential Damage to Trees: If not installed correctly or if too restrictive, they can harm the tree by limiting access to water and nutrients​​​​.
  • Not Always 100% Effective: Some aggressive tree roots may find ways to bypass the barriers, compromising their effectiveness​​.
  • Periodic Maintenance Required: Regular inspections and maintenance are necessary to ensure the long-term effectiveness of the barriers​​.

Installation Methods

The most common method of installing root barriers is the ‘Dig and Place’ approach. This involves digging a trench between the tree and the structure to be protected, then placing the root barrier material within it. The choice of material and method depends on the site’s specific challenges, tree species, and type of barrier used​​.

Planning and Design for Root Barrier Systems

The initial step in planning for a root barrier involves a thorough site analysis. This includes understanding the layout, existing vegetation, infrastructure, and any specific environmental conditions. Factors such as the type of trees present, their root growth patterns, and proximity to structures are crucial. Additionally, existing landscape features and underground utilities should be assessed to determine how they might be affected by root growth and barrier installation.

Selection of Root Barrier Type

Selecting the appropriate root barrier type depends on several factors:

Tree Species and Root Behavior: 

Different species have varying root growth patterns, requiring specific types of barriers.

Soil Conditions: 

Soil type and moisture levels can influence the choice of barrier, as some materials may be more effective in certain soil conditions.

Intended Purpose: 

The barrier should align with the specific goals, such as preventing root intrusion into foundations or protecting underground utilities.

Environmental Considerations: 

The choice should also consider the impact on the overall health of the tree and surrounding ecosystem.

Root barriers come in different materials, including high-density polyethylene (HDPE), fiberglass, metal, and sometimes permeable fabrics. Each material has its specific applications and benefits, making it suitable for different scenarios​​​​.

Design Considerations

When designing a root barrier system, the depth and width requirements are critical considerations. These requirements vary depending on the tree species and the intended purpose of the barrier. Generally, root barriers are installed at a depth sufficient to prevent roots from growing underneath them, typically around 30 inches or deeper for larger tree species. The width of the barrier should be enough to encompass the area needing protection, taking into account the potential spread of the tree’s root system.

In urban landscapes, root barriers are often placed parallel to the structure they are protecting, ensuring a safe distance to avoid harming the tree’s health while still offering effective protection.

Integration with Existing Landscaping and Infrastructure

The integration of root barriers with existing landscaping and infrastructure is essential. The installation process must be planned to minimize disruption to the existing landscape and any nearby structures. Careful consideration must be given to how the root barrier will affect the water flow, soil moisture levels, and overall health of the vegetation. It’s important to ensure that the root barrier does not inadvertently cause damage to other parts of the landscape or infrastructure.

Proper installation techniques are vital to the effectiveness of root barriers. It’s recommended to follow manufacturer guidelines and, when necessary, consult with professionals for installation to ensure optimal results and avoid potential damage to both the tree and the surrounding area​​​​.

In summary, the planning and design of a root barrier system require a comprehensive understanding of the site, careful selection of the appropriate barrier type, and thoughtful consideration of the depth, width, and integration with the existing environment. These steps ensure that the root barrier fulfills its purpose effectively while preserving the health and aesthetics of the landscape.