What the Tree Taught the Builder

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

Greenspiration Home

New Jersey Oak


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.



6 Responses »

  1. Good info also many Historic Districs have strict regulations even other projects that can involve some undocumented burial grounds can keep projects from moving forward or not approved.

  2. Great words to the uninformed, I also have seen the “drip line” boiler-plate many times. My approach is to do everything you have learned plus one more. At the first meeting with the “new land owner/client” point out that Oak trees are precious, supper sensitive to water table changes, vibrations of traffic and equipment and may well be in the “last year” now. Don’t speculate on the outcome of the actives as no one really knows. We who care try our best regardless and celebrate the living trees at the completion of the project.

  3. Trees can be pretty tough in south Louisiana, where normal rainfall is 60 inches per year and top soil is up several feet deep because of the centuries of Mississippi spring floods. My son and I put large pieces of broken concrete around the base of a huge[9.5ft dia] oak tree on the back edge of my property, We surrounded the tree with a raised bed of 3 deep crossties leaving a space of 8 feet around the tree[completely open at the back] and filled that with dirt. The concrete protected the base of the tree and the first couple of feet out. Beyond the raised bed all was deck, except for one open area and one brick patio that covered an existing concrete pad..8X12. I guess the deck protected all the space to and beyond the root line. But a few inches of fill dirt is an excellent way to kill a tree when the dirt covers all the ground out to and beyond the drip line.I have found that out the hard way.

  4. Fascinating & yes, I remember when we tried to save our trees (builder too) and then the building inspector showed up and made us provide more buffer between the trees and the septic system. We tried and did keep many trees and well, in fact one of our criteria in picking a builder was someone who wouldn’t just run the trees down.

  5. The problem is most builders today have never been carpenters. When I apprenticed with my Master Builder Father 50 years ago we would pick the trees from the woods that were needed for each part of a new home, then have a sawyer cut them into lumber, which we would grade and sort. The green wood was stacked in reverse order with the material to be used first on top. We then covered it and let it air dry for a year before we would start building. My point is we had an intimate long term relationship with the wood before we started building. We knew the lumber came from the land not from the closest Home Depot or Lowe’s.

    My view now is that we (people, critters, trees and all the rest) are all part of the same whole. We can evolve together or die alone buried under our denial and ego driven consumerism. If we swam in the rivers, walked in the woods and listened to the birds a little more, we would quickly get the message. Earth will survive but mankind may not.

    Enjoy you musing,

    Jim Shepherd

  6. Jeff, thanks for taking the time to do your project well, save the tree and show other contractors the way to not only good building practices but enhancing the harmony of people, space, earth and life.

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