Big machines may speed up yard renovations, but sometimes they create more work than you bargained for.

Big machines may speed up yard renovations, but sometimes they create more work than you bargained for.

In 1962, John F. Kennedy said, “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”

Thirty years later, John Archibald Wheeler wrote, “We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.”

Shortly after this time, I learned this concept in college. So, while I apologize if I come across as a know-it-all. I am increasingly aware of how much I don’t know. But in today’s column, with my three decades of seeing landscape and construction projects of all types come and go, I have a hard time not sounding a warning.

The question I set before you this week is: With regard to equipment versus hand-work, is it really “Six of one or a half-dozen of the other?”

A few years ago, a long-term customer of ours pointed to some underperforming shrubs: “I will need those shrubs removed,” he said. “But I need it done with a machine. I don’t want your guys wasting their time digging these out by hand.”

I understood his angle: One way or the other, hydraulics would make short work of these plants. Yet on the other hand, I stepped back and looked at the job. First, the shrubs did not need to be dug out: Cutting them at grade would be sufficient. Second, suppose the job did take three times as long to dig by hand: Would machine and operator together not cost at least three times as much? Third, and most importantly, the shrubs were located within the critical root zones of mature ornamental pear trees. Would it really be possible to dig or pull these shrubs without damaging these priceless trees? Six of one . . . maybe. But damaged trees? Not a half dozen of the other!

Recently a different customer told me his plans for a patio remodel in his backyard. Of course, the amount of digging and material transport would have been a challenge without big machines. But the photo shows the outsized “half dozen of the other” he is now dealing with outside the work zone: Both side lawns damaged or destroyed, front lawn damaged, new driveway gouged, mature tree trunk and root damage, countless landscape plants destroyed.

What began as a backyard remodel will now be nearly a whole property renovation. What was saved in time driving pallets of stone to the back patio, will now be dwarfed by the repairs to the “road” built to move the materials.

I understand some jobs just cannot be done with small or no machines. But my warning to homeowners renovating their landscapes is as follows: Ask questions about the big picture of the job. In political economics terms, what costs are being externalized? What is “an ounce of prevention” worth?

Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit’s municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business. Reach him at

Recommended for you