Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Stability of containerized urban street trees


Trees are usually grown in containers in the nursery until they reach a certain size, whereupon they are transplanted to a permanent location. Infrastructure development has often led to the removal of large trees. To maintain lush foliage and trees of a size that benefit urban ecology, trees can be grown in containers. Containerized trees can be moved from one location to another, and this relocation does not require root pruning or crown-size reduction. The drawback to having trees in containers is the small and confined volume of the container, which limits tree root development and thus affects containerized tree stability. The objective of this study was to understand the failure mechanisms for and the effect of the root dimensions on the stability of containerized trees. Therefore, small-scale stability model tests were conducted which were verified using numerical and analytical models. The results identified two failure modes that were likely to occur: tree overturning and container overturning. The mode of failure was dependent on the root dimensions. When the trees had extended their roots deep into the container, the whole container would overturn in the event of failure due to increased root confinement and shear resistance of the soil. On the other hand, the main failure mechanism when there was shallow root development was the uplifting of the tree from the container while the container remained upright. The results from numerical and analytical models were consistent with those obtained during the small-scale model stability tests.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1a–c
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9
Fig. 10
Fig. 11
Fig. 12
Fig. 13a–b


τ :

Maximum shear stress


Effective cohesion


Effective angle of internal friction of the soil

H c :

Height of the container

D c :

Diameter of the container

H t :

Height of the tree

φ :

Friction coefficient

E :

Young’s modulus

υ :

Poisson’s ratio

W t :

Weight of the tree

W s :

Weight of the soil

W c :

Weight of the container

L :

Ratio of moment arm to height


Diameter at breast height


Unified soil classification system


Consolidated undrained


Linear variable differential transformer


  1. Altee A, Fellenius BH (1994) Physical modeling in sand. Can Geotech J 31:420–431

  2. Arnold HF (1980) Trees in urban design. Van Nostran Reinhold Co., New York

  3. ASTM (2002a) Standard practice for classification of soils for engineering purposes (Unified Soil Classification System) (D2487-00). In: Annual book of ASTM standards, sect 04, vol 04–08. American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), West Conshohocken

  4. ASTM (2002b) Standard test methods for laboratory compaction characteristics of soil using standard effort (D698-00). In: Annual book of ASTM standards, sect 04, vol 04–08. American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), West Conshohocken

  5. ASTM (2002c) Standard test method for measurement of hydraulic conductivity of saturated porous materials using a flexible wall permeameter (D5084-00). In: Annual book of ASTM standards, sect 04, vol 04–08. American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), West Conshohocken

  6. ASTM (2002d) Standard test method for consolidated undrained triaxial compression test for cohesive soils (D4767-11). In: Annual book of ASTM standards, sect 04, vol 04–08. American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), West Conshohocken

  7. ASTM (2002e) Standard test method for direct shear test of soils under consolidated drained condition (D3080-11). In: Annual book of ASTM standards, sect 04, vol 04–08. American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), West Conshohocken

  8. Carmichael EM (1984) Timber engineering practical design studies. E. & F.N. Spon, London

  9. Ching A (1998) The effect of transplant container shape on vegetative growth and root yield of sweet potato. Acta Hortic 516:163–167

  10. Coutts MP (1983) Root architecture and tree stability. Plant Soil 71:171–188

  11. Crook MJ, Ennos AR, Banks JR (1997) The function of buttress roots: a comparative study of the anchorage systems of buttressed (Aglaia and Nephelium ramboutan species) and non-buttressed (Mallotus wrayi) tropical tress. J Exp Bot 49:1703–1716

  12. Dupuy L, Fourcaud T, Lac P, Stokes A (2007) A generic 3D finite element model of tree anchorage integrating soil mechanics and real root system architecture. Am J Bot 94:1506–1514

  13. Fourcaud T, Ji J-N, Zhang ZQ, Stokes A (2008) Understanding the impact of root morphology on overturning mechanism: a modelling approach. Ann Bot 101:1267–1280

  14. Fredlund DG, Rahardjo H (1993) Soil mechanics for unsaturated soils. Wiley, New York

  15. Fuller FM, Hoy HE (1970) Pile load test including quick load test method, conventional method and interpretations. Highway Res Rec 333:74–86

  16. Geo-Slope Ltd (2009) Stress-deformation modelling using SIGMA/W, an engineering methodology, 4th edn. Geo-Slope International Ltd., Calgary, p 325

  17. Holtz RD, Kovacs WD (1981) An introduction to geotechnical engineering. Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs

  18. Keong LC (2004) Wind effect on trees and roof garden. Final year project report. School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

  19. Lambe TW (1969) Soil mechanics. Wiley, New York, p 553

  20. Landis TD (1990) Containers: type and functions. In: Tree container nursery manual, vol II. Agricultural handbook. USDA Forest Service, Washington, DC

  21. Mattheck C (1996) Trees: the mechanical design. Springer, Heidelberg

  22. Meyerhof GG (1965) Shallow foundations. ASCE J Soil Mech Found Div 91:21–31

  23. Mickovski SB, Ennos AR (2003) Model and whole-plant studies on the anchorage capabilities of bulbs. Plant Soil 255:641–652

  24. Mickovski SB, Bengough AG, Branby MF, Davies MCR, Hallett PD, Sonnenberg R (2007) Material stiffness, branching pattern and soil matric potential affect the pullout resistance of model root systems. Eur J Soil Sci 58:1471–1481

  25. Peltola H, Kellomaki S, Vaisanen H, Ikonen VP (1999) A mechanistic model for assessing the risk of wind and snow damage to single trees and stands of Scots pine, Norway spruce, and birch. Can J Forest Res 29:647–661

  26. Rahardjo H, Lim TT, Chang MF, Fredlund DG (1995) Shear strength characteristics of a residual soil. Can Geotech J 32:60–77

  27. Rahardjo H, Harnas FR, Leong EC, Tan PY, Fong YK, Sim EK (2009) Tree stability in improved soil to withstand wind loading. Urban For Urban Green 8:237–247

  28. Rakow DA (1987) Containerized trees in urban environment. J Arboric 13(12):294–298

  29. Stokes A (1999) Strain distribution during anchorage failure of Pinus pinaster Ait. at different ages and tree growth response to wind-induced root movement. Plant Soil 217(1):17–27

  30. Stokes A (2002) Biomechanics of tree anchorage. Plant roots—the hidden half. Plenum, New York, pp 175–186

  31. Stokes A, Mattheck C (1996) Variation of wood strength in roots of forest trees. J Exp Bot 47:693–699

  32. Stokes A, Ball J, Fitter AH, Brain P, Coutts MP (1996) An experimental investigation of the resistance of the model root systems to uprooting. Ann Bot 78:415–421

  33. Strachan MD (1974) Tar paper containers. In: Proc N Am Containerized Forest Tree Seedling Symp, Denver, CO, USA, 26–29 Aug 1974, pp 209–210

  34. Tami D, Rahardjo H, Leong EC, Fredlund DG (2004) A physical model for sloping capillary barriers. Geotech Test J 27(2):173–183

  35. Terzaghi K (1936) The shear resistance of saturated soils and the angles between the planes of shear. In: Proc First Int Conf Soil Mech Foundation Eng, Cambridge, MA, USA, 22–26 June 1936, pp 54–56

  36. Terzaghi K, Peck RB, Mesri G (1996) Soil mechanics in engineering practice, 3rd edn. Wiley, New York, p 549

Download references


This study was carried out as a part of a research collaboration to develop a container for growing street trees. The study was conducted with the Nanyang Technological University and National Parks Board, Singapore. The assistance of Mr. Rayner Wee during the preparation of this manuscript is greatly appreciated. The anonymous reviewers who made critical comments and recommendations are also greatly appreciated.

Author information

Correspondence to H. Rahardjo.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Harnas, F.R., Rahardjo, H., Leong, E.C. et al. Stability of containerized urban street trees. Landscape Ecol Eng 12, 13–24 (2016).

Download citation


  • Containerized tree
  • Urban environment
  • Small-scale model test
  • Numerical modeling
  • Tree stability