Protect trees during construction

Daniel Gill, Bogren, Richard C.  |  2/14/2008 2:48:20 AM

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Get It Growing News For 02/08/2008

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Homeowners often are dismayed to find trees that existed on their lots when their houses were build start declining in health or dying a few years after construction. But this tragedy can be avoided if existing trees are properly protected during construction around them.

The major damage done to trees during construction generally is to their roots, so it’s a good idea to briefly look at how the roots of a tree grow. A tree’s roots generally grow out in all directions like the spokes of a wheel, although this varies. Trees planted along a street, for instance, will produce most of their roots in the lawns away from the street rather than under the street itself. (Growing conditions in the lawn areas are simply better than conditions under the street for root growth.) The root system also extends a good deal farther out than the reach of the branches.

In addition, the overwhelming majority of a tree’s feeder roots (the roots that absorb water and minerals from the soil for the tree) are located in the upper 12 inches of soil. You can see this when a tree blows over and the exposed root system is shallow and flat like a plate. This makes the root system far more prone to damage during construction than most people realize.

The first step in saving existing trees is meeting with your contractor, architect and anyone else who will be involved in the construction before it begins. It is a good idea to bring a licensed professional arborist into the process at this time as well.

At such a meeting, forcefully stress how important preserving the health of the trees is, and come up with a plan to do it. It is good to have statements on how the trees will be protected in the contract that will govern the work.

Remember, you need to consider a variety of important points, such as avoiding mechanical injury to trees, how grade changes can affect trees, protecting tree roots during excavation and what to do after construction is completed.

Mechanical injury

Heavy equipment will damage tree roots by merely passing over the ground close to your trees – and the damage happens with the first few passes. The damage occurs when the roots are physically crushed or the soil is so compacted that the roots cannot function properly. Heavy equipment operators also can damage tree branches and trunks by hitting them and causing wounds that weaken a tree and may lead to decay.

Construct a fence or barrier around the tree to prevent equipment and vehicle injury to roots, trunk and low-hanging branches. The barrier should be placed at least as far as the branches reach.

Do not allow anyone to park vehicles, clean equipment or dump chemicals in the fenced zone.

Grade changes

Try to avoid grade changes in the fenced area, as well. Trees depend on the feeder roots in the upper 6 to 12 inches of soil for water and minerals. Lowering the grade in the area under the canopy of a tree, and consequently removing the shallow roots, will harm or kill the tree. This damage also makes the tree more likely to blow over in a storm.

On the other hand, if you raise the grade by adding soil, the tree may slowly decline in vigor or die because the roots cannot obtain the air (oxygen) they need. This need for oxygen is a major reason tree roots are so shallow and close to the surface.

It’s generally possible to add up to 2 inches of a sandy-loam soil without hurting your trees. But you can’t go much ore than that.

Trees with damaged or buried roots often do not die immediately. In fact, they may live several years before declining. And unfortunately, once damage becomes evident, it is too late to correct the problem.

Excavations

Tree root also need to be protected when you excavate for water, gas and sewer lines.

Start by considering the location of trenches, and avoid any trenching in the fenced area you set up around the tree. If you cannot route the trenches far enough around the trees, the next best thing is to tunnel under the root system. Power-driven soil augers often are used for this purpose.

If you will be digging trenches, try to follow these rules:

--Position the trench as far away from the trunk as possible.

--Cut as few roots as possible, and cleanly sever roots if cutting is necessary.

--Backfill the trench as soon as possible and don’t leave the roots exposed to air.

--If the trench will pass well within the reach of the canopy, tunnel if possible.

After construction

Insist that fences or barriers around the trees not be removed until after everything else is cleaned up and carried away from the construction site.

If at all possible, have all debris hauled away rather than buried or burned on the site. If you cannot have the trash hauled away, burn it in open areas downwind from your trees. Fires should be kept small and as far from live trees as possible. (Check ordinances before burning to see if it’s allowed.)

Also, do the final leveling or grading of soil around trees by hand and not with heavy equipment that could break or damage the roots.

Get It Growing is a weekly feature on home lawn and garden topics prepared by experts in the LSU AgCenter. For more information on such topics, contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office or visit our Web site at www.lsuagcenter.com. A wide range of publications and a variety of other resources are available.

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Contact: Dan Gill at (225) 578-2222 or dgill@agcenter.lsu.edu

Editor: Rick Bogren at (225) 578-2263 or rbogren@agcenter.lsu.edu

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