The Complete Guide to Protecting Your Trees During Construction

Ben Kissam
Written by Ben Kissam
Updated February 21, 2022
large tree in front of residential home
Photo: nd700 / Adobe Stock

Highlights

  • Trees aren’t generally harmed during construction

  • If damage occurs, it can lead to a slow death

  • Water and mulch can help reduce stress

  • A fence or markers can provide a visual aid to limit foot traffic

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Trees add shade, privacy, natural beauty, and fresh oxygen to the area around your home. So while planning a construction project is exciting, you'll want to consider carefully how it will impact the trees in and around the zone being worked on.

Learn how to protect trees during construction—as well as what you need to do once construction is finished to ensure your trees stay healthy.

Determine Which Trees Are Worth Saving

The headline might read a tad bleak, but it’s actually the best first step for even the most eco-conscious home and landowners among us. Everyone’s situation—and landscape—will look a little different, but knowing which trees to care for versus remove is helpful.

Here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Damaged or even dead trees on a property that’s about to undergo construction are likely not worth saving. In fact, they may pose a fire or critter infestation risk down the road if left on the property.

  • Diseased trees should be looked at carefully. A local arborist or tree specialist can tell you if the tree is salvageable or not.

  • Trees right on or next to the construction zone may have to go, unless they were just planted and can be transplanted to a new area. Keep this in mind when selecting a construction spot.

  • Trees in areas that are being regraded are less likely to survive. Taking protective measures before grading happens instead of after is key.

  • Certain kinds of trees (like fruit trees) are more resilient than others. Identify which trees you have in the area, and do research to find out if fragile trees in or around the tree protection zone are worth saving.

If, after doing this research, you realize a lot of trees will have to go, perhaps you can look into recycling all that lumber or where you can plant new trees once the new layout is completed.

Pay Attention to Root Zones

It’s not very likely that a tree will get cut in half, have its bark torn off, or its branches sheared while building a new structure. What’s more likely is subtle damage to the tree roots underneath, which slowly weakens the tree over the next one to five years. Eventually, it dies.

Roots not only anchor trees, but absorb nutrients and water that are key for tree preservation, and many of a tree's vital roots aren’t buried that deep. In fact, about 80% of its vital roots are 24 inches or less. Knowing the root zones of the trees you wish to protect, then, is key.

A good guideline measurement is for every inch of tree trunk, assume a radius increase of 18 inches. If a tree has a circumference of 36 inches, its root zone is 54 inches. Simply multiply 1.5 by its circumference to find an answer.

Mark and Fence Trees

With the root zones in mind, mark—and perhaps fence off—all the trees that you think may be at risk of damage during construction.

A 100-foot spool of orange construction fence can be purchased at home improvement stores for between $30 and $45.

Limit Foot Traffic During Construction

Even with the best set of plans in place, surrounding trees may still receive some impact during construction. Limiting foot traffic helps prevent additional trauma or stress to the area. 

If walking in these areas is unavailable, especially for construction workers who must load heavy objects across the area, lay down planks or plywood to help reduce the impact.

Water Regularly, Especially if Trees Are Young

Water runoff can increase during construction, especially if you’re regrading or reshaping the layout of your yard. Sediment and other contaminants can also make their way into groundwater, which isn’t great for tree growth.

If your irrigation system won’t be in use, you’ll need to manually water your trees. Water should be provided once or twice a month for younger trees. 

Lay Down Mulch Over the Roots and Soil

woman putting mulch on tree roots
Photo: artursfoto / Adobe Stock

Mulch does an amazing job of insulating and maintaining moisture around the base of a tree. Both of these things are advantageous during construction and in the months that follow, especially if you live in a drier area where not as much rain falls.

For younger trees, sticking to an annual mulching schedule is a good idea. After a year three, biannual mulching is usually plenty.

Keep an Eye Out for Dead Branches

Even if you take all the precautions, there’s still a chance some trees will wind up damaged during construction. You can root out these issues by keeping a close eye for dead sections or branches of an otherwise healthy tree cropping up. 

This is a sign that roots were damaged, and you’ll need to prune these areas—tree care during the winter is a good time—to prevent further decay.

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