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Tree roots – planning construction projects around them

Posted on: October 3rd, 2017

With the arrival of fall and fall-like temperatures, we’re spending more and more time indoors with family and friends and the outdoors are becoming a distant memory.

Until one day you’re outside raking leaves and decide maybe next year is the year we’ll tackle a full landscape renovation.

Suddenly the gears in your head begin turning, dollar signs soon follow and before long you’re looking up design ideas online. Custom decks, paver patios, outdoor kitchens and living rooms, fire pits…and the list goes on. Sounds like it’s time for a plan.

Planning in advance

One of the biggest obstacles (literally) in your landscape are your existing trees. Early in your planning, it’s wise to consider the existing trees and how changes in irrigation, soil cover, elevation/grade, foundation excavations, and soil compaction from construction activities will all impact roots of existing trees. Tree branches may also require pruning to accommodate any new construction such as pergolas, screened in rooms and other overhead enclosures.

We know trees are stationary living plants in the landscape, and like all living things, they get used to their surroundings. Trees grow accustomed to the care they do and do not receive. Just like human beings, once they have put down “roots” change is difficult to adjust to.

Root of the Matter
Tree roots are the number one consideration when contemplating renovations. Roots form two basic functions. Number one, they provide stability in the soil and number two, they absorb water and nutrients – both necessary for survival. Roots are formed as a function of need. All things being equal, open growing trees will have more structural roots than trees growing on protected sites. Trees relying on what nature provides have more fibrous absorbing roots than those in a lush lawn setting.

How Much Space?
Tree roots can grow well past the canopy edge. The portion of the tree roots critical for the tree’s health and stability are known as the critical rooting zone.

To approximate this area, measure the circumference of the trunk at 4.5 feet above ground level. Divide the circumference in inches by six. The result is the number of feet from the trunk that represents the critical rooting zone. For example, a 60-inch circumference equates to a ten foot radius from the tree trunk. The ten foot radius is the critical rooting zone.

In the critical rooting zone, tree preservation practices should be implemented. Tree branches in the way of construction activities may be temporarily tied out of harm’s way. Branches also may conflict with new construction. Anticipate these conflicts early and determine if the branches can be safely pruned. If pruning can be accomplished, integrate this work into the construction schedule.

Tree Preservation Plan
Municipal ordinances may govern tree preservation and potential tree removals. Think about what trees you want to preserve through the process. Seek the services of a qualified arborist to assist you in devising a tree protection plan. The most effective plans are devised well in advance of any construction activities.


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