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Places to Avoid Planting Trees and Shrubs

Planting the right trees and shrubs in the right place is not just an aesthetic strategy. It promotes safety and prevents damage to the plants, nearby buildings and utilities, and relations with the people who live next door.

Anticipate the consequences of poorly placed plants — dangerous limbs hanging over your roof or growing into electrical wires, roots clogging your sewer pipe or leach field, inaccessible utility service boxes, unhappy neighbors, and unsafe driving conditions.

Pruning efforts to correct the problems after the trees and shrubs mature can damage the plants and leave them looking unnatural and more prone to pests and diseases. Consider the following situations before you plant:

  • Overhead power lines and utilities: The best way to keep your overhead wires clear of tree limbs is to consider the mature height and spread of trees before you plant. The International Society of Arboriculture recommends planting trees that grow no taller than 20 feet directly beneath utility wires. Taller trees should be planted so that their mature canopy grows no closer than 15 feet from the wires.

  • Buried wires and gas lines: Frequently, utility companies bury electric, telephone, and cable television wires underground, especially in new developments. Don’t assume that the wires are buried deeper than your planned planting hole — sometimes, they’re buried just below the surface. Although pipes should be buried at least 3 feet below ground, gas companies prefer a tree-free corridor of 15 to 20 feet on either side of pipes to allow for safety and maintenance. Gas leaks within a plant’s root zone can also damage or kill it

    To avoid disrupting underground utilities, many states have laws that require you to contact utility companies that may have wires or pipes on or close to your property before you dig.

  • Service boxes and wellheads: You may want to disguise your wellhead and the unattractive metal box that the utility company planted in your front yard, but someone will need access to them someday. Plan your shrub plantings so that the mature shrubs won’t touch the box or wellhead. Better yet, allow enough space for someone to actually work on the utilities located in the box without having to prune back your shrubs.

  • Buildings: A strong wind can send branches crashing through your roof. Overhanging limbs also drop leaves that clog your gutters and sticky sap that can stain siding. Keep shrubs at least several feet from your house and plant trees that grow to 60 feet or more at least 35 feet away.

  • Streets, sidewalks, and septic lines: Some trees, such as poplar and willow, grow large roots close to or on the ground’s surface where they heave paving and everything else out of their path. Shallow-rooted trees also compete with lawn grasses and other plants, and make for bumpy mowing. Plant roots usually grow two to three times farther from the tree trunk than the aboveground branches do, so leave plenty of room between the planting hole and your driveway, sidewalk, or septic field for outward expansion.

  • Property boundaries and public rights of way: Your state and municipal governments own the land on either side of all public roads. Many communities and highway departments prohibit planting in the public right-of-way. Contact your local government office for guidelines, or call the State Highway Department if your property borders a state or federal highway.

    Homeowners commonly plant privacy hedges along their property boundary. If you plan to plant a hedge or row of shrubs or trees between you and the neighbors, avoid future disputes by hiring a professional surveyor to find the actual property lines. When you plant the shrubs, allow enough space so that mature shrubs won’t encroach on the neighboring property. You’ll also have room to maintain them from your own yard.

  • Merging traffic: Shrubs and hedges near intersections, including the end of your driveway, must be lower than that height or planted far enough from the road to allow drivers to see oncoming motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

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