August 5, 2012: When you call 811, they dispatch a local utility locating contractor to mark the public utilities. The “public” part of public utilities is typically the service line that runs into the meter or junction box on your property. Gas, electric, cable TV, telephone – these usually have boxes or meters on your house and the utility locator will paint the underground locations running from the street through your yard to those locations – but not beyond.

There are a whole host of other things underground that are not marked: water lines, sewer lines, storm sewer lines, electric or gas lines installed by the owner, irrigation pipe, irrigation valve wiring, landscape lighting wire, septic tanks, and drain lines. To locate these you must hire a utility locate contractor. It’s not a free service, and, even then, they can usually only locate utilities with metal in them, such as steel pipe or copper wire. Plastic materials such as PVC irrigation pipe or ABS drain pipe, cannot be picked up on their locators. I often have to locate a PVC water service line into a house to attach an irrigation system to it. If I can’t put the point of connection near the water meter, where I’ve got a good chance of finding it, then I must dig guestimated holes in the yard hoping to discover it. I once engaged the services of an amateur dowser (water witcher) to find a water pipe. I can’t say I was impressed as I found the pipe only after the third hole I dug.

Locators mark the location of pipe with different color paints. The typical color scheme is as follows:
Orange: Cable TV, Communication (telephone, internet) cable
Red: Electric
Yellow: Gas
Blue: Water
Green: Sewage

A defined paint line on the ground does not mean the utility is buried directly underneath. Locators have a 2 foot leeway either side of the actual location to where the mark may be. The other factor that is not identified in the marking is how deep the utility is. It would be nice if all utilities had a minimum depth that was required by uniform code. In reality, public utilities come in varying depths that is governed by differing codes, construction practices, and what happens after installation, like grade changes. Depth also varies dramatically (they get much shallower)as the utilities near your house. Electric and gas lines tend to be the deepest (2-4’). I once nicked an electric line with a shovel . It was the last shovelful of the day and I didn’t even notice it . When I came back the next day to finish the hole I noticed a charred area at the bottom of the hole where the electricity had been arcing into the ground. I thank god for fiberglass shovel handles.

The worse culprits for being shallow laid are the comm. wires (TV, telephone, internet). I have encountered them as shallow as an inch below grade. The most nerve racking part of installing an irrigation system is when your irrigation pipes must cross or come within 2’ of a marked utility. It means you must find that buried pipe or wire, but you must find it very gently. Ever play the board game Operation? It’s a lot like that except with greater consequences. All it takes is nicking the outer jacket of a fiber optic phone cable and it has to be repaired. I’ve often had to painstakingly dig with a trowel to find the buried treasure, which deeply cuts into production.

As I mentioned before there can be a host of non-public (owner installed) utilities that are not marked and are seldom even governed by any codes. In this category I most frequently encounter irrigation pipe. Trade acceptable practices dictate that irrigation lines be buried 12-18” deep minimum. But I have found many systems that are from 2-3” deep to exposed on the surface. The simple act of planting a shrub can cause an hour repair job. Along with irrigation pipe comes the wiring that controls the irrigation valves which often runs in the same trench as the pipe. Good installers will tape the wire to the underside of the pipe before burial, so that anyone excavating later will encounter the pipe before they encounter the wire. All it takes, again, is a nick in the wire insulation and that wire will short out and your valve won’t work. Finding that short later on in the ground can take hours to chase down.

If dealing with buried public utilities and non-public ones weren’t enough, to add insult to injury, there is the blight of subterranean trash. This scourge on the earth typical takes place in the construction of new buildings. Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, masons (IMHO, the worse offenders) and other trades people on site, including landscapers, are often tempted and often succumb to burying their unwanted construction debris on site. This leaves me, the irrigation/nightlighting installer/repairer to encounter this later in my excavation efforts. I’ve encounter entire buried sacks of lime and mortar (them masons!), 8 foot 2 x 4’s, tar buckets and paint cans, pieces of pipe, an antique round bottomed ginger ale bottle, but the worst is encountering scrap wire. When I’m digging and my shovel pulls up a strand of wire, my heart sickens, my pulse races, the hard-wired fight or flight instinct kicks in. Do I run? Do I find out what this wire is attached to? Do I inquire from the homeowner whether they still have phone service? I am proud to say I’ve never run, nor buried the wire back up and feigned ignorance, but when I find that the wire was some piece of scrap tossed in hole or trench I want to fight. I want to have that scrap wire tested for DNA and have that matched with a list of known debris buriers, so that I may confront them with their deed. Construction people: Please, out of mutual trade respect and world peace, don’t bury your crap on the site! Someone will find it and someone will curse you.

I know there are more harrowing professions than mine. Soldiering, firefighting, bomb disposal, mine clearing, teaching - all carry greater consequences. I would submit, however, that harrowism (that's actually not a word) is a matter of perspective. As I lay beside the trench probing for a wire or pipe with my trowel, you can't tell me the pressure isn't on. One awkward slip of the shovel and my customer is without internet or water for days. Day in, day out, it can be a tough thing to live with.


July 28, 2012: Beneath the ground you and I tread upon lies an unseen world of stuff, some benign and some deadly. We give little thought to this subterranean world as we skip and play on the surface, but for those that must delve into its depths with a shovel it holds terror and apprehension, or it ought to. (Cue ominous music here). Electric lines, gas lines, sewer lines – things that can kill you if you hit them or at least make you wish you were dead temporarily. Let me share with you my world, the world of the irrigation contractor, the world of digging in minefields. (Cue final crescendo here).

When a burglar is breaking into your house or you’re having an attack of angina, who do you phone – 911. When you are about to dig, you call – 811. One digit away from an emergency. I always thought that number was apropos and ironic. It’s the number to the Utility Notification Center(UOC) and every state or region has one. . Call it and they dispatch an underground locator within 2 -5 business days that will mark the public utilities (or at least the more dangerous ones) that run to your house for free. It’s a preventative number. Hopefully by calling 811 first, you prevent someone else from calling 911 later when you’re in convulsions on the ground because your shovel bit into an electric line. I’ve often wondered how many people in emergency situations dial 811 by mistake. It’s probably quite a few because the first automated answer you get when you call says if you’re intending to dial 911 you’ve got the wrong number.

There is a federal “Call, Before you Dig Law” as its colloquially known. As a contractor that digs, I am required to call on everything I do that involves digging. Even homeowners are required to call if they are excavating more than 12” deep. That’s something as simple as installing a mailbox post or planting a tree. If you don’t call and hit a utility line, you can face a substantial fine. If you do call and they mark the utility’s location and you hit it, you can be fined. The point is that you need to know the location of what’s underground and not hit it, and there is lots of stuff underground these days. The world beneath our feet is rapidly becoming a world of rampant subterranean urban sprawl. . . . Don’t get me started on that!

Throughout the years, I have had my share of utility mishaps. There was the time years ago, when I was planting a tree with a group of high school students in front of the county central educational district office for an Arbor Day ceremony. The district superintendent and my own principal would be there to get the photo op of watering the tree after planting. On digging out the hole, we severed the mainframe computer feed cable that connected all the schools in the county to the central office. Without data, school bureaucrats were paralyzed for several days. Needless to say, Arbor Day ceremonies were drastically dampened by that event.

Or there was the time that I was installing an irrigation system and cut a cable TV line. . . to the neighbor’s house. I hadn’t noticed it, at the time, but when these two adorable little twin girls ran out from the adjoining house in their Saturday mass dresses sobbing great crocodile tears, followed by their mother saying that their cartoon show had suddenly cut out and what was the problem . . . well I knew something was amiss. Their grief stricken accusatory faces made me feel such shame and remorse. It was as if I had strangled their pet rabbit. I am still haunted today by that image. I often wonder what happened to those little girls. Did they grow up to be happy well-adjusted young women or did they grow up scarred and fearful that at any moment their view of life could be suddenly shattered by some stranger in muddy work clothes? It’s a tough thing to live with.

I can’t speak for other landscape professionals, but I have developed a fear of digging over the years, which can be a very disturbing fear if that’s your business – digging. I thought maybe there’s actually a clinical disorder about the fear of digging. I went online and the closest thing I could find was a fear of dirt – rupophobia, but this had more to do with obsessive cleaning than digging. If there are any clinical psychologists out there who would like to pioneer the research of a new disorder, they could be the first champions to find a treatment for “subterraphobia” – fear of what lies underground (I actually just made that up but it oughta be in the lexicon). I could see exposure therapy and hypnotherapy and forums such as SA (Subterraphobics Anonymous) being developed to combat a disorder that for so long has been hidden and in shame for irrigation professionals. It’s time to bring subterraphobia out of the trenches and into the light of day.

Ah, you may say, surely having those utilities marked, as required by law, should be sufficient to treat this fear. But, not all underground utilities are marked and not all marked utilities are exactly where they are marked. What is marked, what is not marked, how accurate the location marked is, and still more personal utility trauma stories (right now this is the only therapy I have available) will be covered in the next installment, Digging in Minefields, Part 2


June 26, 2012: When my daughter was young I used to play a game with her friends and her. While walking through a park or the woods I would point to a tree and holler “Trees are worth money! 10 cents!” The child that correctly identified the tree got the dime or nickel or sometimes a whole quarter. I found the financial incentive to be great for teaching tree identification and besides, it made me feel like an arboreal Alex Trebec ( “You've chosen Conifers for 10 cents . . . )

The problems with financial education incentives are that the bar is continually pushed upwards. Nickels and dimes, soon became quarters and dollars, and in the teen years it became, “That’s a cascara. I want to borrow the car tonight. That’s Holodischus, ocean spray, I want my own telephone in my bedroom!” Being unable and unwilling to meet these EDO’s (extortionary debt obligations) the Tree Bank folded in short order.

Your trees are worth money though and there is a way that their value can be assessed. It’s called tree appraisal and it’s an organized methodology to derive a specific dollar value to a tree. Most often tree appraisal comes up when there has been damage to a tree – sometimes due to another party, sometimes due to a natural disaster. For example, someone’s car careens off the road and strikes a tree in your yard. Just like if your car was struck by another car and an insurance appraiser inspects the damage and derives a settlement dollar amount, a tree appraiser can inspect your tree and determine the extent of damage and the dollar value of that damage.

Tree appraisals are conducted by registered consulting arborists and certified arborists. One size does not fit all when it comes to tree appraisal. There are different methods that are applied and that is determined by what is most appropriate for the situation. I’ve done a couple of handfuls of appraisals over the years. They have ranged from the more garden variety of “a dump truck backed over my tree”, to 3 acres of hurricane damaged landscape, to an intentional tree murder by an adjoining landowner dumping diesel fuel on the roots of a tree.

In every appraisal situation the first question the appraiser must ask is what is the most appropriate method to use. The worth of a salmon at the fighting end of a fishing rod will not be its worth served at a posh restaurant grilled with lemon juice and olive oil and delicately seasoned with herbes de provence and perhaps some of them curlicued beet and carrot strips alongside for visual impression. Appraising the worth of a tree in the forest will not be the same as appraising the worth of a 100 year old Oregon oak that is the centerpiece of a landscape.

The appraisal menu has the following entrees:

- The Diameter Method: This is the method most often used in larger trees in the urban/suburban landscape. It often results in a larger dollar value. It is often used where litigation is involved to determine a claim amount.

- The Property Value Method: This method is used to determine the loss of property value resulting from the loss of trees. In the 3 acres of hurricane damage, I mentioned above, I knew Mother Nature was not going to pay for the damages. If any kind of financial redress was forthcoming, it would be from the loss in property value that might be claimed on a tax return. This appraisal really required three different professionals. An arborist knows tree values. A real estate appraiser knows property values. A tax accountant knows when and how you can claim it on your taxes. Each needs the input of the other for a valid claim.

- The Replacement Method: This method is used for smaller trees, ones that can be realistically replaced (say 8” diameter or less). It involves an estimate of the cost to remove the damaged tree and to replace with one of a similar size. This may involve professionals other than an arborist, such as a tree grower and/or landscape contractor, folks that regularly plant trees and can give accurate, up-to-date costs.

- The Crop Method: Used where the damaged tree is part of an agricultural crop - trees in a forestland or trees in a Christmas tree plantation, for example. I live in a stand of Doug fir. If someone trespasses and cuts down one of my fir, the law says I’m entitled to 3 times its worth as a sawlog delivered to the mill, and no one cares whether I’ve hugged that tree daily for years, it’s the centerpiece of my rural landscape or I was planning to be buried beneath it. It’s a timber tree.

Once an appropriate appraisal method has been chosen, the tree appraiser goes on site and inspects the tree. For the diameter method, the tree’s “DBH” (diameter breast height – 4 ½’ above the ground) is measured. From that is calculated the square inches in the truck and that is multiplied by a dollar value per sq. inch. That’s the base worth of the tree and then the arborist will begin knocking that down based on it’s species, condition and location.

Let me create a scenario to illustrate. That hypothetical Doug fir that I mentioned above, let’s say it front and center in my suburban landscape, a key element of the landscape. A dastardly neighbor uphill of me, secretly cuts down the tree one dark night to get a better view. Forensic scientists are able to match the wood fiber of the trunk to the wood fibers inside the neighbor’s chainsaw and we have captured the culprit. Unfortunately, tree murder is not a jailable offense, and instead we take this butcher to court.

This was a large Doug fir, 36” DBH. It’s cross sectional area is 1018 square inches. At $60/sq. in. that’s $61,180!!! Holy Sequoia! But now we have to figure in other factors. First, there is the species factor.]Species factor is based on the desireability of a species for a given area. Does it grow well? Is it prone to disease and insect problems. Does it have pleasing form, flower or fruit? This is a very subjective judgement and to keep it a little more objective tree appraisers as a group through the CTLA (Council of Tree and Landscape Appraisers) have published guidelines for judging these factors. Douglas fir have a species rating between 65-85%. Let’s pick the middle – 75%. Now the tree’s value becomes $61, 180 x 70% or $45,885.

The second factor is the condition factor, how healthy was this tree. This tree was healthy but it wasn’t perfect. It had a long lightening scar running down the trunk, it had some dead branches, but the trunk was sound and without signs of decay. The arborist rates it @70% of perfect. 70% of $45,885 = $32,119.

The last factor is the site location factor. It rates how prominent and important the tree was in the landscape. Was is a focal point in the front yard? Was it one of several in the backyard? Did George Washington sleep underneath it? The CTLA appraisal handbook gives a range of 80-90% for residences. This tree was prominent , but Washington didn’t sleep under it, only the owner when he was locked out one night. The arborist rates it at 80%. Now $32,119 x 805 = $25, 695. That’s still a big chunk of change for that tree.

Now it’s a matter for the court to take that appraisal information and determine a settlement amount. There is a lot of room for subjective judgement and it is the responsibility of the arborist to document the reasons why they chose the factor amounts that they did. Two different arborists may come up with two different appraisals and it can often be a matter of dueling arborists (one for the plaintiff and one for the defendant) in a court of law.

If we take the same Doug fir and transport it to my rural woodlot. The neighbor this time cuts it down wrongfully for firewood. The value of that tree delivered as logs to the sawmill is about $450. Triple that due to the Oregon timber trespass law and that neighbor will owe $1350. That’s a long ways from the 26K for the suburban landscape tree.

So you’re trees are worth money and usually more than you think. A good reason to take care of them .


May 13, 2012: On this Mother’s Day, I would like to reflect on worms. Is there anything more wholesome and American than earthworms? Mom, apple pie and earthworms! They (the worms ,that is) help churn our gardens up, create soil structure and tilth, deposit organic matter. They are the symbol of Mother Nature and her quiet powerful ways of restoring the earth and natural balance . . . or are they?

I was recently reading an article on an online seminar website for arborists (for short, concise and informative articles on trees and the business of caring for them, I highly recommend ) about earthworms. Though the article did say that earthworms had many benefits for the garden and agricultural land, they weren’t so great for trees and were particularly damaging for forestland. “Heresy!” I cried. Surely this is foreign plot to destroy our faith in these annelid angels, our soil borne buddies. Upon further research, I did indeed discover that foreigners are involved. They are our earthworms! Apart from places in the Southeast and Southwest US, all the earthworms in the northern half of the US and all of Canada are foreign, introduced from Europe or Asia over the hundreds of years of colonization, settlement, agriculture and anglers. All the earthworms that were native to most of North America were exterminated by the glaciers of the Ice Age. Ah man! Another cherished notion shattered by biological truth.

In our vegetable gardens and in agricultural lands, these foreigners are still beneficial, for the reasons I stated before. They have a remarkable capacity to take raw organic matter and convert it to readily useable nutrients in a fairly short period of time. They build soil structure where soil structure is needed – disturbed ecosystems which , no matter how beautiful or serene, your garden is. Those characteristics, however, are not ideal for forestland and by extension the trees in our gardens or streets which are still essentially forest trees placed into non-forest areas.

Here’s the rub. While in your vegetable garden, worms can create better infiltration for the soil, but in the forest it does the opposite. In the forest, it is the forest duff layer, the accumulation of leaves, branches, Forest with duffForest with duffdead chipmunks, etc., that creates a layer that builds the soil and increases infiltration and decreases erosion. It’s a slow process that takes years through the actions primarily of fungi. Worms however can take an entire season of leaves and decompose them in 1 year. Rather than a slow transition, it’s a rapid one and it results in no duff layer. The duff layer is critical to many species of flora and fauna. For many forest wildflowers, such as trillium, trout lilles and mayflowers, it’s the difference that allows them to survive or not. Forest ecosystemsForest withut duffForest withut duff are changed by the presence of earthworms. As duff disappears from the forest floor, then the seeds from larger seeded trees such as oaks are no longer able to hide from predators and disappear. The microfauna such as insects, spiders, amphibians that depend of the cover of the duff are now imperiled also.

For urban/suburban trees in the landscape, research is starting to suggest that earthworms will not cause a visible decline or death, but they do cause water stress in trees – just another stress in the already stressful life of an urban/suburban tree.

The good news is that worms don’t travel much on their own. They can spread about ½ mile/100 years. Less than a snails pace. But as with many exotics, its less about how they will naturally spread than how we will help them spread. Between compassionate anglers dumping their unused nightcrawlers by the side of their favorite forest stream to vermicomposters dumping worm compost on their newly planted trees the foreign invader is aided and abetted by us. As Pogo would say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
At least one state, Minnesota, has recognized the foreign peril and has a state statue making it illegal to dump worms in the wild. They even have their own worm homeland defense webpage, What can you do to stem the tide of these slimy invaders?

- Dispose of worm bait in the trash not the woods.

- If you must use vermicompost on trees, freeze it solid first.

If I have been unduly harsh on earthworms, it’s because I’m feeling a little betrayed, like when I found out last year that Santa Claus was really my parents. Worms are good in the vegetable garden or flower beds or the crop field – disturbed environments (or at least until new research proves otherwise), but they’re not around trees. I think what disturbs me also is that the natural world is not very simple. When you think you’ve got a handle on it, you probably haven’t. No saints or sinners in the natural world, just things doing their thing.

There’s still Mom and apple pie left. . . . but is apple pie a native or an exotic? . . . I don’t want to go there today.


April 28, 2012: It appears, by all I’ve observed, that spring has come this year to the Willamette Valley and that is, historically, been followed by summer. Our springs are capricious, to be kind, or schizophrenic, to be less kind. One day the sun comes out and it soars into the 80’s and the next four it’s raining and in the 40’s. No mild, benign transition for us. And when summer comes, as it has historically, it will be Suddenly Summer. No ambiguity, just hot and dry.

So, in this time when it appears to be spring, it’s a good idea to start up our irrigation system, get it ship-shape and ready, and perhaps reflect on the meaning of life. Let’s first start with talking about starting your irrigation system up. I’ll reveal the meaning of life later.

Your irrigation system has been winterized, as it should be. There have been winters that really haven’t necessitated winterization. Our ground only freezes a couple of inches deep at best and a well installed irrigation system is at least 12” deep everywhere, but not all irrigation systems are well installed. To not winterize a system is to bait the gods and that’s seldom a wise strategy. In winterization, the water flow to your irrigation system has been shut off at a main irrigation shutoff valve or at your irrigation backflow. The irrigation lines are probably also drained through the use of manual drain valves located at low points in the irrigation system or have been blown out by the use of compressed air.

The spring startup is turning the water back on, pressurizing the lines, and seeing if everything works. Sounds pretty simple and is . . . . if done properly. So here are some steps to reviving your irrigation again.

1)Before you turn the water on, first locate your drain valves and shut them. They’re typically located in 6” diameter round plastic boxes with green lids. Sometimes they can be located in the boxes that your irrigation valves are in, just upstream of the valves.

2)Now to turn on the water – sssllloooowwwllllyyyy crack open the main shutoff valve or turn one of the ball valves on your backflow. Fully and quickly opening a valve sends a wall of pressurized water racing down pipes that can blow them apart or at least weaken the joints for later failure. As you crack open the valve, you’ll hear the whine of water as it squeezes through the small opening you’ve made. It’s screaming to be let go and bring life to your landscape , but you must be strong! Do not let it fully escape! Go in the house and have a cup of coffee, watch a game, or read Wordsworth, anything that will occupy 15-20 minutes. If you come out and it’s no longer screaming for freedom, then the water has filled the pipes and is satisfied and you may and must fully open the valve. Partially open valves will cause a lack of pressure in your sprinkler system.

3)If you have drip irrigation in your irrigation system, your next step is to find the drip irrigation valve box(s). These will be rectangular boxes (~11 x 17”) and they house the electric valve, a pressure regulator and a drip filter. It’s the drip filter we’re looking for and it resembles an inverted extra large wafer ice cream cone (not the pointy sugar cones but the flat bottomed wafer kind except the bottom isn’t flat, it’s rounded and . . would you excuse me for a minute?) . . . . Thank you for your patience. I had sudden irresistible craving. That drip filter cover will unscrew from its base and underneath will be a round mesh screen. Take this out and wash the slimy green algae, sediment or whatever off the screen with a garden hose and reinstall.

Now check the ends of your drip laterals, the black or brown pipe that delivers the water to your drip emitters. These lines, in normal operation, are usually closed with a screwable cap or a plastic figure eight end closure. You want to make sure the ends of the lines are open so that water may pour through them and flush the system out when the drip valve first comes on. Drip systems depend on water without sediment in it that can clog the tiny orifices of emitters. Flushing out sediment through the lateral pipes is an excellent way to keep your drip functioning properly.

4) Now you’re ready to test the valves. Go to your irrigation controller and manually, from the controller, turn each zone on in sequence. There’s usually a manual advance button on the controller but there’s a lot of different irrigation controllers out there. You may need to find the manual to figure out how to turn on your valves. As you fire off each zone, go out and observe it in action. Are all the heads popping up? Are they spraying exactly where they should be and not overspraying? Do you see water gurgling out of the ground? Now’s the time to note any problems, by zone, you see and also to mark them (I use cute little multi-colored irrigation flags to mark trouble spots, but any kind of stake will do).

5) Close back up the ends of the drip laterals.

6) If there no problems, then life is good. Enjoy your spring. If not, then it’s time for repair and that’s another article.

And now the meaning of life. I, uh . . . well . . . I uh have no idea what the meaning of life is. I led you on. I knew, no I thought, that you’d never read an article so banal as just how to turn on your irrigation system. In that thought I did you, gentle reader, a disservice and for that I am sorry.

If, however, you know the meaning of life, please let me know. For this fall I must write of irrigation winterization and that will command either a greater truth or a larger lie to get folks to read that.

F & P