by: PHOTO COURTESY OF OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY - During remodeling or improvement projects, an ounce of prevention goes a long ways towards maintaining healthy trees on your property. Home improvement projects needn’t cause the demise of trees … use care and caution to protect tree roots during construction and digging

It may still be winter, but spring will be upon us before we know it. Some of us are already making plans for home or garden improvement projects. Whether you're planning to put in a new patio, repair a driveway, rebuild a sewer line or remodel or build a new home in the middle of a wooded property, there are numerous ways you might inadvertently damage tree roots that could ultimately spell the demise of your tree.

You wouldn't want this for a host of reasons — for one thing, trees and shade trees add to the value of residential and commercial properties. Fortunately, with just a little care and foresight, these fatal consequences can be avoided.

Debunking an urban legend: most mature trees don’t really have much of a "tap root"

When planning ways to protect your tree and the roots upon which it depends for survival, it’s important to have a good understanding about exactly how and where a tree’s roots grow. Contrary to urban myth, in a mature tree, the roots don’t extend that far down. They are found mostly in the upper 6 to 12 inches of the soil, and, they extend far out from the trunk. In fact, roots typically may be found growing out laterally a distance of one to three times the height of the tree.

Avoid cutting, smothering roots and compacting soil

The digging and trenching associated with building a home, installing underground utilities and other home improvement projects can easily sever a portion of your tree's roots. Your tree might not die right away, but will begin to decline over several years. Loss of roots also increases the potential for a tree to topple over in high winds or bad weather.

Smothering roots

The fine roots of a tree need space, air and water to stay healthy and meet the needs of the tree; if you allow soil to be piled over a tree's root system, it smothers the roots. Only a few inches of added soil can smother the fine roots of a sensitive mature tree, leading to its decline and death. Don't let this happen to your tree.

Compacting the soil

An ideal soil composition for your trees includes about 50 percent pore space. These are the spaces between the soil particles filled with water and air. Heavy equipment associated with construction can compact the soil and severely reduce pore space, inhibiting root growth and decreasing oxygen essential to the growth of the roots. It's much easier to prevent soil compaction than to correct it.

Plan ahead to avoid tree damage

Small home improvement projects like installing a small patio or deck or repairing a driveway aren't as problematic to trees when properly planned. All you need to do is think ahead about where your tree's roots are located and how you can protect them. One way is to lay large sheets of plywood in areas that are trafficked by machinery or heavy vehicles — the plywood spreads out the weight of the machinery. For smaller jobs, to minimize the effects of something stationery like a compressor or piles of boards, bring in some bark mulch and spread it over the area 2-3" thick.

For larger projects like building a new home in a wooded area, or working on a home remodeling project, hire a professional arborist early in the planning stages. Talk with her or him about your concerns. Will tree removal be necessary? Which trees will you keep? It’s true that young, small trees tend to survive disturbance better than old, large trees, but aim to retain mature trees for both their environmental and economic benefits. Consider the species, size, maturity, location and overall health and condition of your tree.

An arborist can help you discuss things with the builder or contractor and erect a temporary construction fence to protect trees and root systems. Make sure the fence stays in place and isn’t moved, keeping in mind root systems may extend much farther than the “drip lines,” or area directly located under the outer circumference of the tree branches.

If tree roots become exposed, be sure to keep them moist with wet burlap. Remember that saving clumps of trees rather than individual trees often is easier and more desirable. After construction activities are completed, continue to water, monitor and care for your trees and have them evaluated periodically.

Other tips

Many cities have guidelines for building around trees; if you're a homeowner within city limits, make an effort to familiarize yourself with these. Also, if you have construction or remodeling going on, it's best to allow only one access route off and on your property. Get things in writing, and make sure all workers and contractors are aware of limitations and specified work zones.

Your trees contribute to property values by enhancing appearance, reducing noise and cutting energy costs. They also help keep our air clean and provide habitat for birds and wildlife. With these precautions, you'll be one step ahead of the game in retaining the trees on your property and all of their associated environmental, economic, and social benefits.

Cynthia Orlando has a degree in forest management and is a certified arborist with the Oregon Department of Forestry in Salem.

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