There goes the garden! Photo: http://www.dustysdraincleaningandplumbing.com.
I hear horror stories all the time about the severe damage to landscaping that can occur when workers are brought in for renovations or construction. You’d think anyone with the slightest bit of sense could see that the plants and gardens the owners put in are valuable and worthy of a bit of attention. Indeed, sometimes you do run into a contractor who really does seem to care, but most of the time, it’s just “Wham, bam, here’s the bill!” Branches snapped off, gardens flattened, plants uprooted: it’s pretty awful.
Workers sometimes seem to have blinders on, so concentrated are they on getting the job done well, but as fast as possible. Their thought process certainly doesn’t seem to include carefully tiptoeing through the tulips.
And it’s not just the plants: hardscape can come out mangled too. Pavers cracked or sunken in, a post splintered, a lamp crushed, etc. At least contractors seem more sympathetic to hardscape damage and more willing to fix said damage. They always seem surprised to learn that the plant material has any value at all!
So, if you have renovations coming up: pipes to replace, an addition to add, siding to install, etc., be prepared for a bit of a massacre. Even things you wouldn’t think would cause much destruction, like roofing or painting, can leave the landscape below in tatters.
What to Do?
Sometimes reparations are urgent—say, a sewer pipe bursts—and you won’t have time to do much more than sign the contract and step aside, but most of the time, you’ll be planning renovations well ahead of time. That does give you some leeway … and it’s surprising just how much you can do to prevent the worst damage.
Look for a Plant-Friendly Contractor
Yes, they do exist! Maybe you’ve seen neighbors whose landscapes came through construction or renovations in pretty good shape. Ask them for the reference!
And if you have a problem with sewer pipes, consider trenchless sewer line replacement. It reduces landscape damage to essentially nothing!
Dormant plants suffer less than actively growing ones. So, if you can work things out to get repair projects done from mid-fall through early spring, that may be best. Well, at least in areas where heavy snowfall isn’t likely to interfere: there, where precious plants are invisible to even the most conscientious worker, midwinter is probably not a good season for renovations!
Before you sign a contract, first make sure you make it clear that your landscape is valuable to you and you want to make sure it’s preserved as much as possible. Go over the “plan of attack” and see if there is some way of minimizing damage. For example, just having the truck parked on the street, if that can be done, certain beats parking it under a tree whose roots can be crushed and branches torn. Talk to the contractor about whether scaffolding can be set up over the garden to protect most of the plants, although you may have to pay extra if such scaffolding is not normally called for. Scaffolding won’t help if digging is involved, of course, but it may well be if repairs are above ground.
Fence It Off
Once you determine with the contractor what space they require, install temporary fencing as a reminder, isolating the designated work area from the garden and landscape. Bright orange safety fence is a great choice: the workers really can’t pretend they didn’t see it!
Don’t Pile Earth Just Anywhere
If possible, insist that any soil dug up be temporarily placed on a hard surface nearby, like a driveway, certainly not on garden plants, on the lawn or over tree roots. The weight of the pile can compact the soil to the point it will never recover and the damage to tree roots, especially, although not immediately visible, can be considerable.
Move ‘Em or Lose ‘Em!
Consider moving sensitive or valuable plants inside the work zone. Dig them and put them in a shady spot. You don’t have to pot them up necessarily, but do cover the root ball with soil and mulch and keep them well watered until you can plant them again.
A covering of straw, wood chips, dead leaves or other mulch 8 inches (20 cm) thick can protect a dormant flower bed or a lawn from foot traffic. If heavy machinery will be rolling over it, put sheets of plywood over the mulch. Even plants that are growing rather than dormant and may be a bit flattened if thus covered usually recover. In fact, you’ll be amazed how well plants hold up under mulch and plywood, even when heavy machine passes overhead.
Beware of coverings that can allow the soil to heat up, like plastic or vinyl tarps, even if the idea is only to catch paint chips or falling bits of roofing and nails. Things can heat up considerably on a sunny day and that can bake plants underneath. For the same reason, don’t let works lay glass or window sashes flat on a lawn or other green surface, even for a few hours. If you plan on covering plants temporarily, use something that breathes, like an old sheet or blanket or a canvas drop cloth.
Perennials Versus Shrubs
If perennials and bulbs in full growth become a bit flattened, that’s only for one year: they’ll be back to normal the following year. With shrubs, though, it’s a different story. A plywood cover will likely snap their branches off.
If they can’t be moved, consider cutting them back severely. Then they can grow back over time. Or cover them with solid wooden crate or even a metal or plastic pail: that would be enough to protect them from foot traffic, but not, of course, heavy machinery.
If painting or roofing will be going on, consider just leaning plywood sheets against the wall, over the flower bed. That may be enough to protect from any serious damage.
Pull Branches Out of the Way
You can sometimes tie back long tree and shrub branches that are likely to get in the way, pulling their branches upwards or sideways with cord or staking them. Usually the branches simply take back their original shape when you release them. That’s certainly better than seeing them torn off at awkward angles during construction.
Vines taken down from their support simply cannot be put back in place: try it and see! Cut them back severely and they’ll soon grow back. They’re very good at that.
And Then There are Trees!
Trees are a very special case and especially hard to protect. As mentioned, even just parking a truck on a tree’s roots system can compact the soil and crush the roots, often leading to the entire tree’s slow, lingering death years later. Placing safety fencing around them can help, if possible out as far as the outer reach of their branches. In fact, their roots do extend even further than that, but likely those roots aren’t really vital ones and can be sacrificed.
If the contractor says he has to get in even closer to a special tree you want to protect, considering calling in an arborist to see if anything can be done. Or cut it down and plant a new one later: there is, after all, a limit to what you can do!
When the work team has left, there’ll certainly be some cleanup to do. Replanting, judicious pruning, a lot of mulch removal, a few plant replacements, etc., but if you planned well, the damage shouldn’t be too extensive and your garden can then recover quite quickly.
And as for that big new trench backfilled with fresh earth … hey, maybe it would be the ideal spot for a new garden?