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Landscaping Around Utilities

Improperly placed plants cost money, time and aggravation. A plant in the wrong place may m

ake it necessary to remove or relocate the improperly placed plant and cause excessive maintenance by having to trim or prune the plant to keep it in bounds or by stressing the plant and inviting insects, diseases or death. Improperly placed plants in the landscape can also cause problems with utilities, wells and septic systems just to name a few.

When planning your landscape design you should consider not only trees and shrubs but also sidewalks and driveways, mailboxes, decks and patios, play areas and parking. Be aware of overhead utility lines and know where any underground utilities are located.

The easiest and safest way to identify underground utilities is by making a quick telephone call to Pennsylvania One Call System three days before you plan to dig anywhere on your property. POCS is a non-profit company whose purpose is to prevent damage to underground facilities. The location of underground utility lines (gas and electric), water lines, sewer, and drain lines among others will be marked with different colors so you can see where it is safe to dig and where not to dig. The call is free for homeowners. Call 811 or 1(800) 242-1776 or go to If you hire a contractor to do any work on your property, you will be responsible to mark any nonpublic utilities such as landscape lighting or electronic pet fences.

Many properties in the area have on lot septic systems or elevated sand mounds. When planting near either type of system, keep in mind some basic considerations. Do not plant anything on the top of the sand mound except turf. Roots from any other plants will grow into the stones and piping and can interfere with the functioning of the absorption area. To help disguise a sand mound, the grading can be filled around it. Most sand mounds look like a hill in the middle of the yard. They are perfectly functional but not always attractive. The additional fill and grading necessary to help conceal the mound, though usually not prohibitive, will incur additional costs. Plant only shallow-rooted plants near the tank lids and drainage fields. Annuals and perennials, most shrubs and some small trees are shallow-rooted. Your extension offices and most garden centers will be able to help you with plant selection

The tank lid is the large concrete circle out in the lawn. The septic system should be pumped every other year for optimum performance so do not block it or allow shrubs to completely overgrow it. It can be covered with mulch as long as the mulch can be cleared away (preferably by the homeowner) before the tank is pumped and the mulch replaced. The white pipe or pipes often coming 1-2 feet from the ground are risers where the laterals end. The only time access would be needed to these is if they become clogged. Most times they are left standing 1-2 feet out of the ground so that the final grading for the lawn can be completed after the system is installed. These pipes can and should be cut off 2 inches below ground level and covered with turf to prevent damage by animals and equipment. This is simpler than trying to disguise yet another object in the yard. When the pipes are cut below ground level, cover the end with a threaded metal cap (available at most plumbing supply stores) so that it can be located with a metal detector in the future if necessary. If you do not use a metal cap, a piece of metal rebar can be hammered into the ground along side the pipe(s) so that it can be located in the future.

Contact your township zoning office or secretary to review the permit documents for your property to see exactly where your septic tank, sand mound and/or drain fields are. The documents should be available at no cost or perhaps a nominal copying fee.

When landscaping around electric and gas meters the important thing to remember is that the utility workers will need access to them or the bill will be estimated. Keep plantings at least 3 feet away from the meters. Keep in mind that if you cannot get to the meter, neither can the person who has to read it.

If you have underground utilities in your area, you may have a large, green, unattractive metal box at the corner of your property. This is a power transformer. There may also be cable television and telephone pedestals near it. If you plant trees and shrubs too close, the electric company employees can trim or remove them to get access to the transformer for routine maintenance. It is best to keep all plants 3-5 feet away from the back and sides of the transformer and 10 feet away from the front. Keep in mind the mature size of the plant, not the size of the plant when you install it. Keep the plants properly trimmed. Do not plant anything with thorns or sharp leaves (such as Holly). Again, consider the worker who may need access. If you cannot get through, neither can they.

Air conditioning units are another unattractive but necessary feature on many properties. Planting around the air conditioner is very much like planting around a transformer. Keep plants at least 3 feet away so that the unit can be serviced and functioning properly. Do not plant anything with thorns or sharp leaves that the service personnel will have to go through to get to your unit. The only additional consideration is that many units blow air in the process of cooling your home. Not all plants can tolerate the air blowing on them. Choose plants that are heat and drought-tolerant. Your extension office and most garden centers will be able to help you with plant selection. Keep the plants trimmed properly

Many area homes have a well located in the property. Keep trees planted far enough away from the well so that when mature, the drip zone of the tree is no where near the well head or well cap. Well caps are typically 6-18 inches above the grade. Do not cover the well cap with mulch. Insects such as earwigs and spiders, moisture and even ground water can work their way under the cap and contaminate you water supply. A sanitary well seal is designed to be buried and can be installed for $50-150. Many municipalities are beginning to require a sealed well cap. Use common sense when planting near the well cap. Shallow-rooted plants such as annuals and perennials should be fine near a well cap. Do not use chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides near the well cap.

By using a little common sense when planting your landscape, many potentially expensive problems can be avoided. Before you dig anywhere on your property, call Pennsylvania One Call System. Keep plants far enough away from utilities to allow access to them when needed. Keep the plants properly maintained and choose the right plant for the right place!

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