If you live in the United States, chances are that you have heard the admonition to “call before you dig.” As a gardener, you may or may not have given it a second thought. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, this is a nationwide program to coordinate utility notification services for the purpose of assisting people with locating the placement of underground utility lines. I can’t speak for how this is done outside the US, but I would imagine that practically everywhere in the developed world has something similar.
Across the US, regulations vary regarding the extent to which home gardeners are required to use the service, but generally speaking, anyone who damages an underground utility line is liable for the cost of repair, and possibly for secondary damages as well. More importantly, when dealing with buried power lines, it can be a matter of personal safety, so why risk it? Keep in mind that digging is digging, even if you only use hand tools. I can’t think of very many things less pleasant than the prospect of using a spading fork to determine the exact placement of an electrical cable. In fact, I suspect that would qualify as a very bad day.
I recently decided that whether it was required or not, it would certainly be a good idea for me to use this free service before putting the plant shown above into the ground. The plant is a variety of Duranta erecta known as Saphire Showers. A broadleaf evergreen member of the Verbena family, this plant produces flowers during the spring and summer months, and then produces small yellow fruits popular among birds. The flowers attract both butterflies and hummingbirds. For a period of time in late summer, it will often have both fruits and flowers. It is native to the West Indies, but not Florida, with the possible exception of the Keys (the evidence is contradictory). However, there are no documented cases of it escaping cultivation in Florida. Since it feeds native wildlife without invading wild habitats, it has been deemed “Florida friendly” by the state agricultural extension service. To me, that’s a green light for use in my landscaping.
This plant can grow to about 15 to 20 feet tall, but can also be shaped by regular pruning. It also spreads out about as wide as it is tall. For this reason, I’m seeing it as a nice addition to my butterfly garden, in particular in a place where I would like to obscure the unattractive electric meter and telephone and cable TV connections, which happen to be on the wall right behind the butterfly garden. A portion of that garden has gone bare in recent months, due to some plants dying back. That bare patch is located such that a tall plant there would not block too much sun from the other plants, although it should still get enough for itself. Planting the Duranta in that patch would fill the bare spot, attract butterflies and birds, and grow to hide the eyesores on the wall. But that brings us back to the issue of underground utilities. Where, exactly, are those cables? Do they run straight out from the equipment? Or do they run alongside the wall and then pop straight up to their respective service interfaces?
To make a long story short, I’m glad I called. As you can see from the picture below, the electrical cable (marked in red) runs along the edge of the bare patch, making a wide, sweeping curve before angling across the neighbor’s yard. The phone and cable TV cables, on the other hand (marked in orange), run out from the wall in straight lines but at a slight angle, and then turn toward the back fence, keeping about a one foot spacing between them all the way. I would not have guessed either one of those routings. In the end, I can still use this patch, but I need to alter my plans slightly. I plan to think about it for a few days before sticking my shovel in the ground.
As a footnote, I also had the technician mark the routes to the edges of the property, even though I don’t have immediate plans in this area. In the picture below, you can see the orange markings heading toward the white fence in the back. I will be taking careful measurements over the next few days before the markings wash away. That way, when I do make plans, I will know what challenges I’m facing.
So, remember to call before you dig. It’s not just for people with backhoes!