Gardening Help FAQs

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Horticulture Questions and Answers

How do I protect trees during construction?

Wooded lots often make prime building sites and typically sell for more than lots without trees. However, construction needlessly injures or kills many trees on wooded lots, destroying the beauty that made the lot so appealing. Property value also declines as trees die from construction related damage, and some or all of the dead trees will have to be removed, possibly at great expense.

To preserve trees during construction you must take certain precautions. Plan and put these measures into place before construction starts and keep them in place until the project is done. This is the only way to reduce or eliminate tree damage. Waiting until injury symptoms from construction appear which could typically be one to two years and sometimes five or more years after construction will usually be too late.

The first step is to identify the trees on your property and decide what trees you want to save. This is best done by a consulting arborist. Consulting arborists can accurately identify the trees, determine their condition and tell you what to do to prepare the site for construction with the trees in mind. The consulting arborist can prepare a detailed plan you can use to insure that the trees will have every chance of surviving the construction process and beyond. Arborists are listed in the yellow pages under "Tree Services". Listen to Hortline message 3344 "How to Select a Tree Service" for more information on hiring an arborist.

Whether or not you prepare a tree preservation plan, you need to let the contractor know that tree preservation is a top priority and that needless and negligent damage to trees will not be tolerated. You should communicate this to the contractor at every possible opportunity, verbally and in writing. Building contractors seldom take proper steps to preserve trees without the property owner spelling out his or her wishes frequently and explicitly. A tree preservation plan from the consulting arborist can be very helpful.

Important considerations in preserving trees on building sites include the following. Trees vary in their ability to tolerate construction activity. White oak, American beech and sugar maples are among the most sensitive. Young trees are generally more tolerant than mature trees of construction activity and changes in the environment during construction. The larger the lot the easier it is to preserve trees. Small wooded lots make it more difficult because the builder may have to remove many trees just to accommodate the house. Installing the driveway and underground utilities, and changing the grade around the house will probably affect other trees.

The location of the house in relation to the trees you want to save is important. It is best to locate the house where you won't disturb the tree roots. This usually means being well outside the drip line of the most valuable trees. Design and site the house so the driveway and underground utilities are as far as possible from the most valuable trees.

Installing driveways, even unpaved ones, destroys roots and compacts the soil. Digging trenches to install water, electric, gas, and telephone lines cuts tree roots. Do not allow contractors to move heavy equipment in tree root zones. In addition they should not store construction materials or stockpile soil or fill in tree root zones. To prevent this, put up snow fence or some other fencing material around the trees, preferably a few feet beyond the drip line of the branches. Leave the fencing up until all construction activity is through.

Even with proper care during construction, trees in formerly wooded lots and other natural areas may decline over time because the soil environment changes so drastically when you develop a site. The best way to make sure your trees live a long life is to keep the soil in the root zone area in as natural a state as possible. You can do this by leaving the original vegetation in place or by maintaining a permanent layer of shredded bark or wood chip mulch beneath the tree. You may want to plant wild flowers, ground covers, perennial flowers and other ornamental plants in this mulched area. To avoid repeated root damage from year to year, do not locate large annual flower beds in tree root zones.