Trees and Hedges and Houses - Any Questions?

Trees and hedges can soften a neighbourhood and make it more pleasant for all, however inappropriate planting or neglecting what is already there can lead to problems and disputes between neighbours.

    "Will this large tree next to my house damage it?" - with advice goes liability. I will always say if there is a danger, chop it down. Maybe 95 - 99 out of 100 will be ok, but those few that aren't could be pretty disastrous, you can risk it, but I'm not going to suggest you do.

    "Will the roots from this hedge damage my / my neighbours, house / drive etc.?" as above - the variables of soil, local climate, plant variety, building standards through time etc. make advice impossible to give online.

If you are concerned about damage to your property from your or your neighbours plants, or that your plants may cause damage to your neighbours property, then one of the best things you can do is to ensure you are properly covered by your buildings and liability insurance.

The Trees and High Hedges Act 2005: The Act applies to owners and occupiers (for example, tenants).

        Where there are 2 or more trees or shrubs over 2 metres high above ground level and which act as a barrier to light; and
        Where the reasonable enjoyment of part or all of a property, including a garden or part of a garden, is being adversely affected by a tree or high hedge that is situated on neighbouring land; and
        Where the land which is being adversely affected is a domestic property.

If there is an issue that cannot be solved amicably, then you can make a complaint to the Department for Communities and Local Government who have the power to serve notice on the owner or occupier to take action. This will require a fee of a few hundred pounds.

The Department for Communities and Local Government will generally not proceed with a complaint if it is of the view that:

        The owner or occupier of the land which is being adversely affected has not taken all reasonable steps to resolve the issue with their neighbour; or
        The complaint is petty or the purpose of the complaint is simply to cause problems for the owner or occupier of the neighbouring land.

So it is in everyone's interest to solve the issue amicably, though there is now a requirement on the owner or occupier of the land to take action, they cannot simply ignore it.

Trees blocking light - legal information link

Q.  I have two Lleylandii conifers growing one foot away from the house wall, they are about 14ft tall with a trunk at base about 6 to 7 inches in diameter. Do you think they would have damaged foundations and do I need to remove them?

A. Too close - they probably won't damage foundations directly although this partly depends on the age of the house and depth of the foundations, pre 20th century houses in particular have very shallow foundations, where tree roots could easily grow underneath and then start to cause problems.

The problem is usually not direct damage to the brick work, even of older houses, but from the roots drawing water from below the foundations causing the ground to dry out with resulting shrinkage, This causes the ground to expand and contract at a different rate to the rest of the soil around the house and this could cause cracks to appear (in the house brickwork). In this case I advise you chop them down or risk the consequences, especially as those trees are currently youngsters and have a long way to go.

Q.   We have a 25 year old Cherry Laurel Hedge between ourselves and next-door neighbours, about 5 meters away. They are concerned that the roots may be under mining the foundations of their house which is quite old and built on very shallow foundations. My question is what type of root structure does a Laurel have, is a ball type root or a long travelling root?

A.  They're always difficult ones these questions especially when it concerns a potentially expensive liability such as damage to a house.

Laurels are not particularly known for causing problems near to properties and 5m is a fair distance away. The roots could well grow near to your neighbours house as Laurels are large vigorous plants (they can grow to 40 x 40ft given the chance) unless you have a dwarf variety "Otto Luyken" though this is generally not used as hedging.

Any potential damage is more likely through drying out of the soil causing subsidence, followed by "heave" when it rains again, rather than physical damage by the roots themselves of the house masonry and foundations.

What to do? Check your own buildings insurance so that it covers damage to neighbours property by your plants, many policies have this built in but some do not.

You could get an expert in (at cost) to check the situation - taking soil samples near your neighbours house. You could dig a trench at great effort on your neighbours side to sever the roots. Keeping the laurels trimmed, (you don't say how high they are) will help reduce root spread considerably, but not remove the threat.

The only way to eliminate the problem altogether is of course to remove the hedge,

Q.   I have two mature willow trees in the garden within 20metres of the house. I am just in the process of a garden design project and the contractor is scaring me with advice on felling them because of the risk of subsidence.

A.   With advice comes responsibility and if the consequences are possible subsidence damage to a house, it will be a rare advisor who will do anything but err on the side of caution.

The usual "safe" distance for willow trees is recommended at 40m, though this covers the worst case scenario with very vigorous trees and the kind of soil that will compound any damage to the maximum effect. Clay soil that is shrinkable and can be sucked dry by the roots is the main problem and this type of soil is very common in the UK. It can contract in summer and then swell again in the winter taking the foundations for a roller coaster ride (albeit a small one) in the process, that's where the damage is done.

I think you should follow the advice you have been given and fell the trees, it is your choice whether you do or not. I certainly wouldn't suggest anyone plants willow trees so close to a house.

Q. I have a 10 year old live oak that is approximately 7 feet from our concrete patio and about 20 feet from our two story home. It has a surface root that extends about 5 feet from the base of the tree and is heading for our home. May I remove the root to eliminate any danger to the foundation of the home? I cut a smaller root 2 years ago an it has shown no apparent damage but this root is larger.

A. I'd say you should definitely remove the root. There are many variables involved, climate, soil type, annual variations etc. But that tree is too close to your house. It will grow to dwarf the house eventually. The main danger is probably not because of the roots damaging the foundations, but from the tree drying out and shrinking the soil during a dry summer and so causing subsidence. Oaks get mighty big and can lose huge amounts of water in the summer when they are mature. It may not be an immediate danger, but as a rule of thumb, when it starts getting as tall as it is far away from your house, you need to start thinking about felling it. You may get away with it and it cause no problems at all, but the risk is there. If you cut that root, the tree will just need to replace it and it may do so deeper where you can't see it.

Q.  Robinia "Frisia" - I am trying to find out what the root structure is on this tree.  I have one planted within 4 feet of a neighbours house and they are concerned about the footings. Its a mature tree ( some 25ft high) and I want to avoid removing it if the roots don't present a problem.  Have contacted several local garden centers without success.  Any advise appreciated.

A.  The root structure is almost irrelevant. A leafy 25 foot tree of any kind, just 4 feet from a house is far too close for comfort. It's not physical damage by the roots penetrating the foundations that is the problem so much as how the leaves suck up water and dry out the soil so causing shrinkage and swelling over the seasons.

Will it actually do this? Who knows? There are far too many variables, but do I suggest that you leave it in place with an assurance that it is ok?  -  no way. Would I plant a tree myself that will grow to such an height so close to a house?  -  no way. The most conservative rule of thumb with tree roots says that they spread at least as far as the extent of the leaf canopy and so close to the house means that the roots will be already butting up against if not growing underneath the foundations. Frisia can grow to 50ft and doesn't take kindly to pruning.

Q.  There is a 80 ft beech tree in my garden which is 45 ft from the house. Is this a safe distance from the house?

A.  I don't think that this is a question you're going to get any-one to answer anything but over-cautiously. With advice of this type goes liability and if the tree fell on the house, or even just a branch from the tree, the liability would be substantial. Beeches are shallow rooted and you've got a big one! Trees do contract disease and can rot and fall in part if not whole, the chances of this happening is difficult to gauge.

If you're considering whether or not to fell the tree, you have to take into consideration factors such as it's age and health and if it is protected by a preservation order (the chances are that it may well be), and how much you like it. You may consider contacting an arboriculturist / arborist (not a tree surgeon - they participate in the process, but are not usually trained beyond the physical processes of felling and trimming) to take a look first hand.

Q.  Should laurel hedging should be kept away from buildings? and if so how far as I have just bought a property with a laurel hedge which is within a couple of feet of the building will the roots start to affect the foundations.

A.   Contrary to popular belief, it's not the roots directly damaging foundations that usually do the damage, but the fact that large shrubs and trees can dry the ground out near buildings, so causing the ground to shrink and swell according to the time of year and water availability. It's this ground movement that causes the damage.

There are always far too many variables to give direct advice, soil type, size of plants, age of building, depth of foundations etc. etc. and no-one will give you any but the most precautionary advice - if in doubt cut down the tree or shrub.

Having said all of this, there are trees and shrubs that can happily co-exist with buildings for many years without problems, it depends on how much of a risk you want to take.

Personally, I'd never plant a large woody plant over 6 feet in height closer than about 12 feet from a building. As you get closer, the size should get smaller with nothing over about 3-4 feet within about 3 feet. This is all arbitrary however and is NOT intended as advice. Even then you need to keep an eye on things - that's usually where non-gardeners go wrong.

The main problem comes when previously regularly clipped and maintained hedges / trees etc. are left to their own devices and so what was safe and appropriate gets 10x or more the foliage and water requirements and so dries the ground out all the quicker.

Q.   Some 4 years ago my neighbour had a block drive laid about 3 feet from my conifers that have been there for about 32 years. He now says that the trees are taking water and his drive is sinking in some parts. Whilst I know this is possible is it my responsibility when he knew of the trees when he had the drive laid?

A.   There is also the possibility of course that the drive wasn't laid properly or that he's using heavy vehicles on it that he wasn't previously. After all if the trees have been there 32 years, why should the sinking occur just when the drive was laid? If the trees are taking water, then you would expect the drive to bounce back again when the ground becomes wet again in the winter months, if it's not a seasonal cycle, it is unlikely to be your trees that are the cause.

This is a legal matter rather than gardening, I suggest you approach your local council or Citizens Advice Bureau in the first place if he starts to get awkward about it.

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