We know that the value of our property increases with mature trees in our landscape. Shade trees cool our houses in summer heat and allow the same sunshine to warm our homes in the dead of winter. Privacy which we seek can be achieved with deciduous trees in the summer and evergreens in winter. What happens, however, when the spring beauty of early flowering trees changes to common greenery or when deciduous trees drop all their leaves? Many of us may take our beautiful trees for granted, forgetting that trees clean our air, offer food and shelter to birds, butterflies, small and larger mammals, and protect our gardens from soil erosion. Trees are present and comforting, in the background, and we forget to check on them from time to time.
In this idyllic setting, we may notice an occasional gash in the bark of the tree trunk where the lawn mower backed into it or the weed eater removed pieces of bark in the process of getting to the weeds growing too close to the tree. In either case, the tree does not fall down or die immediately, allowing us to forget about the incident.
Unfortunately, there are many other “man-made” mechanical wounds which are not visible and cannot be corrected until much later.
This type of damage can be significant, as it occurs underground in the root area. We are caught unaware and are shocked when obvious problems arise. Below-ground root damage may have occurred at the time of construction. Building materials are brought to the site by heavy equipment, which often drives over tree roots, compacting the soil in the area, and crushing the roots. Large truckloads of soil are added to or removed from the root area. Excavation of the foundation will cut away or damage roots; trenches for underground utilities when dug too close to a tree, will remove large amounts of essential roots, placing the health of the tree in jeopardy. With the construction of the driveway, ponds, planting beds, and grade changes to the landscape design, most trees on a small to medium sized lot will have been damaged significantly. At times, unknown to the home buyer, at the conclusion of construction, building materials may have been buried in the ground around the house. Soil is graded; turf grass is planted. The buyer is happy with what he sees.
First symptoms of damage may not become visible for many months or even years. At this point, it is very difficult to relate the visible damage to the time of occurrence. Many homeowners find mushrooms growing in their lawn or in clumps at the base of tree trunks. These may be an early sign of organic materials in the soil, such as branches, logs, and occasional drywall. The pH of the soil may have been affected, causing degradation of turf grass. Slight wilting or shedding of tree leaves can be noticed shortly after completion of construction. Tree leaf coloration and early leaf drop may occur. In later years, leaf size and general tree growth slows down; twigs and branches will die; resistance to insect damage decreases; and various diseases will weaken the overall health of the tree. In the case of conifers, an excessive needle drop can occur. It can take as long as five to seven years for soil compaction and root smothering to become evident.
To prevent the problems described, it is important that the home buyer prepare a landscape plan showing the placement of the house, driveway, tunnel for underground utilities, and other permanent structures before any construction begins. Research on the trees already on the property is essential to avoid damage to the roots. Temporary protective fencing at the tree dripline will discourage encroachment by construction vehicles. The contract with the builder should include a statement prohibiting the burial of any building materials on site.
Tree care after the completion of construction should include soil aeration, regular deep watering, mulching, fertilizing, and careful inspection for signs of damage.
Information about Extension Solutions for Homes and Gardens can be found on the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension website, www.caes.uga.edu/extension/cherokee; or contact the Cherokee County Extension Office, 1130 Bluffs Parkway, Suite G49, Canton, GA, 30114, 770-721-7803. The Georgia Master Gardener Extension Volunteer Program is a volunteer training program offered through county offices of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. Follow Cherokee County Master Gardeners on facebook at www.facebook.com/cherokeemastergardeners for gardening tips as well as upcoming seminars.