Make a Plan
Preserving trees                    View all SITE PREP articles

You will need to clear land for your house and yard, driveway, well, and septic system. Before clearing the land, check with zoning and building departments (and protective covenants, if they exist)  to see if there are any restrictions or permits required. While clear-cutting restrictions in many areas were developed for logging operations, they may apply to you as well. Or the town may require that trees larger than a certain diameter be saved. Also, know who you are hiring, at least by reputation. An unprofessional outfit can make a mess of your land in short order.

If you care about the results, don’t just let a crew show up with bulldozers and chainsaws and start clearing. Figure out before hand what you want to clear and what you want to preserve.  If you are hiring a forester, logger, or general contractor to do the clearing, make sure you find a reputable person who understands and respects your wishes. Get a bid and find out if the cut timber has value as lumber. Mark out the house footprint along with the other areas to clear with bright tape or paint. Also clearly mark the property boundaries for the clearing crew. (Do a similar walk-through with your contractor or excavator when they come to dig the foundation hole – or more tress may disappear!)

Before proceeding, walk the land together and agree on what trees to cut, taking into account your desires and the practical realities of construction. In addition to the house footprint, driveway, septic tank and leach field, and well, you will need to provide access for excavation and construction equipment, and drilling equipment for the well.  A conscientious person will carefully take down only the trees and brush you want cleared and leave the rest of the site untouched. Remember that operating a piece of heavy machinery near to a healthy tree can damage or slowly kill it by compressing the soil around the roots.

Many people like to keep as much of the natural vegetation and trees as possible around a rural home. However, don’t overdo it. Any unhealthy trees close to the home should come down – so they don’t come down on your new house in the next storm. Also the closer the woods are to the house, the greater the risk that critters such as carpenter ants will include your home in their foraging area.

Also be aware that trees adjacent to excavations or  heavy equipment are likely to be damaged and may not be savable. Depending on the tree species, equipment and excavations should be kept one to two tree-heights away from the tree trunk, although I have seen trees closer than that survive. For critical trees, mark off a do-not-touch area with bright plastic utility fencing. According to arborists, most trees have a good chance of survival if at least 60% of the root system is unharmed. If saving trees around the construction zone is important to you,  consider hiring a forester or arborist to help plan and oversee the process.

Also discuss how the crew is going to clear the land. The fastest and cheapest approach is to scrape away unwanted trees and brush with a bulldozer. However, this is very likely to damage the root systems of the trees near the equipment. Clearing those areas by hand with a chainsaw is more expensive, but will leave nearby trees much healthier.

Stumps and roots. Make sure the clearing crew removes and large stumps and either removes small stumps or cuts them even with the ground. Otherwise you’ll be left with more excavation work later for the large stumps, or small stumps that may trip people, cut tires, and otherwise be a nuisance.


  1. Don’t Cut All The Trees

    Having a plan before you start clearing land is important. Many people don’t realize the shade or other benefits some trees may provide and just cut them all down. Some trees should be left to stay as they can provide tangible benefits in heating and cooling costs.

  2. Krystine Ramos says:

    Land Clearing Person Left Mess

    Hi. My concern is that I hired someone to clear my lot but they didn’t remove the trees and bushes and what not, It was a highly wooded area but now I have no one to remove the mess, it’s just sitting in the middle of the lot. Where do I go, what do I ask for? Help/suggestions please.

    • buildingadvisor says:

      A big problem with construction projects is that many people don’t know what questions to ask and end up with unpleasant surprises. For example, next time (if there is one) you’ll ask whether removal of the wast material was included in their bid – and, if not, how much extra they would charge. If you’re not sure about anything, ask, ask, ask! There are no dumb questions, only dumb assumptions!

      Typically, nowadays, small trees and large shrubs are thrown into the chipper and hauled to a landfill or other facility. You can also use the wood chips on-site for mulch.

      Larger trees may be cut up and hauled off site or buried. If the wood has commercial value as either lumber or firewood, there’s a good chance that someone will cut and haul it for free.

      I would start by contacting the person who cleared your lot, explain to them that you thought they were going to haul away the scrap and ask them for suggestions. Perhaps they will come back for a reasonable fee and clean up the mess — or recommend someone who will.

      Otherwise you can contact a tree service to cut up, shred, and remove the lumber and scraps of brush and wood. You might first contact a couple of sawmills or firewood suppliers to see if they might be interested in cutting and hauling away the larger trees for free.

  3. I’ve recently purchased a wooded lot in a rural subdivision and I want to build a new home. We would like to save as many trees as possible. I’m wondering whether there is a rule-of-thumb for ground clearing, if the house is going to be 30 x 40 ft should I clear 40 x 50 ft?

    Also, I did not do a perc test prior to purchasing. There are other homes nearby so I’m hoping that will not be an issue.

    • buildingadvisor says:

      Saving trees is not the first thing on an excavator’s mind. Most excavation contractors will want to clear as large an area as possible for easy equipment access and space to store the backfill. You generally need a minimum of 2-3 feet of excavated trench on each side of the foundation wall for working space – depending on the type of foundation. Plus the excavator needs some place to store the soil that is being used for backfill or grading work.

      So 5 ft. clearance from the foundation to trees is cutting it very close. Chances are you will damage the roots and compress the soil, killing the trees that close anyway. Also, trees that close to the building will cause other problems including leaves in gutters, debris on roofing, and insect problems such as carpenter ants. You need to consider the diameter of the crown of the tree when full grown.

      Personally, I wouldn’t go any closer to the house than 10 feet for a small tree and 15 to 20 ft. for a large tree.

      If you want to save a few choice trees very close to the house, work closely with your contractor and excavator to avoid cutting too close or compressing the soil there. Mark an exclusion zone around these trees (equal to the crown of the tree) with stakes and bright caution tape. Also make sure you hire an excavator who understands your concerns and is willing to work with you on saving trees.

      Not doing a perc test is risky unless you are very sure of the soil type and water table on your site. One site can pass and the one next door can fail. You are going to have to do one eventually, so better to know ahead of time.

  4. I like how you stated that unhealthy trees close to a home should come down so they don’t come down on your new house. I have seen people who have spent years constructing their home, only to see an old tree fall and badly damage their house. Hopefully people will listen to these tips so they don’t have future problems.

  5. I am trying to clear land for my dream home that I’m building, and I didn’t realize the amount of work that goes into it. I will need to make sure that the excavation crew I hire removes the large and small tree stumps, so that I don’t have to do that all over again when I’m building the foundation. Also I want them to try and preserve as many trees as possible. It’s a complicated process trying to figure out which trees I need to keep, and which are in the way of my future home.

    • buildingadvisor says:

      For this to work, you need to start out with an excavation contractor who understands that saving tress is a priority for you. Assuming you know the footprint of your new house, you should discuss with your excavator what is the minimum space they need for equipment and excavation. Beyond that point, choose the trees you want to preserve and mark them clearly with bright orange “flagging” tape or something similar.

      It’s also important not to compact the soil around the roots by driving heavy equipment or storing materials there, or to bury the base of the tree if the grade is raised. If the grade is raised significantly around a special tree, you may need to create a well around the tree with stone or timbers to keep its base from getting buried.

      So to protect an important tree, it’s best to create a perimeter fence around it, marking the space that is off limits to equipment, materials, and added soil. How far the fence should be from the tree depends on the type of tree and other factors. Best to check with a nursery or forester. Some towns have a professional tree person on the payroll who would be glad to help out



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