We have recently moved into a home with several large old growth fir trees on the property.
Will creating a sandbox at the base of a fir tree cause any damage to the tree?
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Yes it will. The tree's roots are used to X amount of depth to be able to get the most water at the best time. If you add a couple of inches (9" is standard for sand boxes)...you will essentially cause the roots beneath the sand box to die. Depending on the size of your out door kitty box (grins) your tree might have no trouble at all losing a small part of its root system. Otherwise, depending on the age, size of your tree, its current health, covering or thickening the amount of soil roots are used to extracting water, chemistry from will smother the roots.
I would recommend looking for a different spot, somewhere close to the kitchen window, the windows off the deck, patio to be able to keep your kids safer from wildlife. Covering the sand so cats won't use it as a cat box. A wooden lid that could be secured easily to the sand box. Light enough to pull off sand box, and used as a mini deck for the kids in the sand box...?
Not sure where you live but I spent most of my career in the Seattle area. LOTS of deer, cougars, skunk, badgers, bear...we've encroached too much on their habitat and hanging out near mankind has its benefits. 350 square miles per male cougar.