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It's No Accident When Plants Avoid Mishaps With Workers Around

June 08, 1996|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last winter, I watched in dismay as an electrician, with a sweep of his arm, accidentally knocked a large green tomato off a plant in a container on my patio. For months, I had coddled the winter plant so I could taste fresh tomato in February.

Snatching up the tomato, he awkwardly tried reattaching it to the plant. When he realized the task was impossible, it broke the tension, and we both laughed.

The tomato incident wasn't nearly as heartbreaking as when I discovered the stub of my once-gorgeous bougainvillea, all that remained after painters had prepped my house.

These experiences taught me something critical about construction and plants--they don't mix. If you want your plants to survive construction, do some planning and protecting.

Construction workers are accustomed to working with inanimate objects, such as building materials, rather than items that are alive and need to be cared for.

Plants are at great risk during construction, and some accidents can be fatal, says John Wirth, a landscape designer for Richard Cohen Landscape & Construction Inc., a design firm in Lake Forest.

"The landscape is at the mercy of several subcontractors who have little knowledge about the needs of plants," he says. "If plants are damaged, construction workers think they'll grow back, but that isn't always the case."

Common plant damage during construction includes limb breakage, bark wounds and scarring, and root disturbance from heavy equipment. Smaller plants, including lawns and ground covers, can be trampled and suffocated when construction workers use such areas to pile work materials.

Even areas accustomed to foot traffic don't hold up under the constant pounding of construction boots.

During painting, foliage is usually splattered with paint, and roofers often slop tar onto nearby plants.

Worse, after work is complete, many subcontractors dispose of their waste products in the landscape, which can kill plants.

They pour paint and cleaning solvents into the ground, especially around the bases of trees. Tile workers rinse pails of cement, and some workers even dig holes and bury oil from their power tools, Wirth says.

"All this improper disposal creates minute toxic dumps in the land that we as landscapers come across," Wirth says. "Sometimes, dumping spoils the soil and creates an area where nothing will grow."

Landscape designer Greg Grisamore, owner of G. Grisamore Design Inc. in Corona del Mar, says, "We'll put a new tree in the landscape during construction, and the next day there will be paint or varnish around its base. This can ultimately lead to the tree's death."

There are ways you can protect your plants during construction. Experts offer this advice:

* Communicate. Construction workers don't set out to ruin your plants. Unless you tell them, they won't know that certain plants are irreplaceable.

"Discuss plant maintenance requirements with the general contractor and give specific instructions," says Erik Katzmaier, a landscape architect with Katzmaier Newell Kehr in Corona del Mar. "Or hire a landscape contractor to oversee the plants during construction."

To protect your land, insist that workers properly dispose of waste products, such as unused paint, Katzmaier says.

* Create a staging area. To protect your landscape, cooperate with the construction crew so they can get their work done. Provide a staging area where they can put their materials. Large driveways or stone or brick areas are good places. If your lawn is the only possible location, protect it with plywood or another material before equipment is hauled in. During downtime, make sure the grass gets air, water and sun.

* Fence it. While making construction crews understand that you don't want your plants damaged, fencing off your favorite plants is also recommended.

"If you don't cordon off a tree, it will be used to store tool boxes and equipment because it is a nice, shady area," Katzmaier says. "Most people won't cross a boundary."

You can put your plants off-limits with fencing known as Orange Safety Grid, which comes in 4-by-100-foot rolls for about $90 at landscape and building equipment stores, supply yards and large hardware stores.

Or you can use yellow and black caution tape to rope off an area.

* Protect roots. Regardless of a plant's size, the majority of its root system lies in the top 18 inches of soil. These feeder roots take in the most moisture and nutrients. If too many of them are damaged, the plant will die.

It's important not to compact the area around a tree or restrict air or moisture passage.

If working around a tree is necessary, build a wooden platform around its base to protect the root zone. The structure should extend to the drip line, which is the point on the ground directly under the tips of the tree's outermost branches. The area within the drip line is where the plant gets most of its water and nutrients.

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