So you’ve decided to plant a couple of trees in your landscape this
weekend. What’s the worst thing that could happen? An aching back?
Blistered hands? Not even close!
How about swinging a pickaxe, hearing a clang and getting drenched
with a geyser gushing from the water main you hit? Or maybe pulling
back the lever on your rented Bobcat and realizing you’ve just
ruptured a gas line or torn up a buried electrical cable?
It’s safe to say that any of those could pretty much ruin your
weekend. You would also earn the wrath of your neighbors whose
utilities were cut off until crews could repair your damage, and it’s
likely you’d be responsible for the cost of repairs and possibly even
open to legal consequences.
You might think that the hole you are digging for that new tree isn’t
deep enough to cause a problem, but that can be a dangerous
assumption. For one thing, some utilities might be closer to the
surface than you imagine.
Additionally, you have to remember that tree roots can go deep and
wide as the tree matures, and planting over or close to underground
utilities is like burying a green time bomb that can dislodge and
break lines many years in the future.
Fortunately, this is a problem that has a very simple (and free)
All you have to do – BEFORE you dig – is call a single 3-digit phone
number: 811. When you call 811 from anywhere in the country, your call
will be routed to your local One Call Center. Local One Call Center
operators will ask you for the location of your digging job and route
your call to affected utility companies. Your utility companies will
then send a professional locator to your location to mark your lines
within a few days.
Utility companies have offered this service for many years, but with
so many companies with so many phone numbers spread across the
country, there was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. Hence the
start of a national one-call service and a unique phone number, 811.
Some homeowners believe the 811 service is solely for contractors but
that is incorrect. Utility companies are just as happy to mark their
lines for your DIY projects as for professional excavation jobs.
I should add that, even if you hire professional contractors to build
that new deck or fence on your property, don’t assume they will call
811 before they begin work. I recommend that you ask the contractor if
they have already done so, or you can simply call 811 yourself and
tell your contractor that you’ve made the call.
Within a few days, you’ll see some little colored flags or lines of
colored paint criss-crossing your land, indicating what lies beneath.
Here’s what the colors indicate:
Red – Electric
Orange – Communications, Telephone/CATV
Blue – Potable Water
Green – Sewer/Drainage
Yellow – Gas/Petroleum Pipe Line
Purple – Reclaimed Water
White – Premark site of intended excavation
As you can see, white paint or flags are used to indicate where you or
your contractors are planning to dig. It’s a very good idea to mark
the dig location before the utility locator teams come out. But be
sure you use only WHITE markers to avoid any confusion!
While the marker teams are looking down, you should take a few moments
to look up. Overhead power and telephone lines are so much part of our
lives that they almost become invisible to us.
But a tree planted under or close to an overhead power line can be a
major problem. Before you plant a tree anywhere near overhead lines,
double-check the possible mature height and canopy spread, and if
necessary err on the side of caution and plant it a little further
Special thanks to Alecia White, representing The Common Ground
Alliance, for reminding us that more than 256,000 underground utility
lines are struck each year in the U.S. If you’d rather not be part of
that statistic, simply call 811 so you’ll know what’s below before you
The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs
and landscaping to firstname.lastname@example.org and for resources and
additional information, including archived columns, visit www.landsteward.org