A few months ago I ran across the following posting by Jeff Toye, a residential renovation and construction professional in northern New Jersey. I was struck by the honesty and sincerity of this builder as he spoke about a lesson he learned while working on a project involving a historic oak tree. It’s not often that you run across a builder who cares so passionately for tree preservation. For those of us who have built homes on lots with the hopes of preserving trees, only to have them die, one by one, as a result of carelessness on the jobsite, his words will most certainly strike a chord. Find a builder that talks this way about saving a tree, you might well just have found yourself a keeper….
Trish Holder, Publisher
By Jeff Toye
It is sad how little builders know about trees.
I was involved in a residential development that had an oak tree that happened to be on the historic register. It was one of the oldest trees in NJ and I was building a house on the property where the tree stood. The developer and historic commission rightfully stipulated that the tree be preserved at all costs. Since George Washington seems to have slept everywhere in NJ, I could only assume that he napped under this tree as well and was prepared to preserve the historic integrity of the property.
In the contract agreement that the owner signed, the building committee stipulated that we install fence around the drip line of the tree to make sure it was protected from the onslaught of construction equipment and activity. Since I trust no one’s judgment and because I would ultimately be held accountable if the tree died, I diligently researched the effects of construction on trees by scouring the internet for information and articles on arboriculture. While researching, I came to the realization that I had killed a lot of trees in my time by doing exactly what the building committee had directed.
You see, rain falls outside the drip line of the tree, so the all-important and most fragile water gathering capillary roots that extend to and beyond this area are the ones you need to protect. These roots are right on the surface and are as thin as thread. As little as 2 inches of impacted dirt over these fragile roots will kill the tree. Driving over them will have the same effect.
I learned through my research that in order to protect the tree in question, I needed to protect the area beyond the drip line. The rule of thumb is one foot of protection per inch of tree diameter. So, if the tree trunk diameter is 18 inches, you need to protect a full18 feet away from the base.
Although we had built a protective fence around the drip line (30’ from this tree’s base) I realized we actually needed to protect a far greater area given the size of the tree. Unfortunately, that would have put our fence in middle of the garage of the new building!
We met the requirements of the building committee, but I decided to do more. I was very protective of the rest of the root zone and made sure that when I was done no water drained into the drip line–another no-no! No standing water in the root zone! I also encouraged the homeowner to hire a local tree expert who came in after construction was complete. He used a high-pressure device that is inserted into the ground and serves to blows apart the compressed soil, allowing air and water to enter this critical area. This process helps the capillary roots heal from the trauma experienced during construction activity.
That was 10 years ago and I’m pleased to say that the tree still stands today! A good job done by all! A few branches were lost on one side, where soil was impacted around an area where we had to work, but after six years, new branches emerged in these same areas.
It was a great learning experience – one that has given me a whole new outlook on the way I build. I encourage every builder and especially landscapers to get educated before killing their next tree. Every tree species has different diameter ratios, but the oak is the most extreme; I always use the aforementioned ratio for those.
Long live the tree!
Jeff Toye is the author and is the owner of Promethean Remodeling, LLC in Hackettstown, NJ. He is a Certified Green Professional and a Certified Graduate Remodeler. He has been in the remodeling business for 33 years.