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Organizing and Carrying Out a 
Community Forestry Event

 

Planting a tree can be a simple yet wonderful activity with many important benefits, but many people do not know the correct methods of tree planting or even how to find this information. Perhaps one of the best ways to learn about tree care and maintenance - and to plant the trees that will provide beauty and shade for generations to come - is to get involved with a community urban forestry group. Organizing and carrying out an urban tree-planting event is a complex procedure, involving such processes as formulating goals, obtaining tools and equipment, acquiring funding, researching and following applicable regulations, recruiting volunteers, selecting and planting trees, and providing long-term maintenance for the trees. As Gary Moll and Stanley Young said "all projects to develop the urban forest, whether planting a few dozen trees…or establishing a tree-care operation, require three basic elements: organization, planning, and funding" (1992, p.83).

Planning an urban tree-planting event requires a great deal of time and effort, and involves many steps. A variety of programs exist throughout the United States (and worldwide), some national and some local, some non-profit and some publicly supported, each tailored to meet the needs of the surrounding community. Tree-planting events usually start with the actions of a few concerned citizens who act as project leaders. To help them get organized, those citizens should gather project leaders from a variety of backgrounds who can work together to finish the task. It helps to have experts in such areas as financing, plant care and maintenance, legal codes, and working with governments and private organizations to maximize contributions of both money and time. The people who live and work within a community are the ones who know and care most about it, so they should be heavily involved in the organization process. Projects should be tailored to the community's goals, objectives, and resources. By involving neighbors and site visitors, you can increase the odds that the plants and site will be well cared for long after installations. In some regions, city or county council members or other elected officials can provide assistance in dealing with legal and administrative issues.

Project leaders need to decide on concrete, attainable goals for both the initial planting and long term care of the trees. The general scope and focus of the project needs to be decided, including the size, number, and species of plants to be planted. Organizers need to make sure they have specific, reasonable projects for the volunteers, that are matched to the interests and abilities of the volunteers. Having well-trained project leaders will help things run smoothly. Project leaders need to know how many volunteers will be needed, and well as how many they can reasonably expect to show up. It generally takes a group of two or three adults about two hours to plant a large street tree, and each such group could plant two or three trees in one day (Lipkis, Lipkis, & TreePeople, 1990). If the planting will be in a public area or will require closing down a street or otherwise inconveniencing people, organizers should plan ahead and have contingency plans for dealing with any problems that may arise. Issues such as where the trees will come from, where they will be stored before the event, and how they will be transported to the event must also be considered when planning the project.

To guarantee the success of their event, organizers should educate community members about the benefits of urban forestry. Kathryn Tenusak has stated that urban tree plantings are "built around the idea that empowering individuals and communities with knowledge, resources, and personal commitment will have a domino effect across the country--and it has" (1996, p.29). These programs often serve to bring communities closer together, add trees to the urban environment for the benefit of humans and other organisms, and replace some of the many trees lost to disease and destruction. According to American Forests, a national urban forestry group, "for every four trees removed in U.S. cities today because of death or disease, only one is replaced" (Suryarman, 1997, p. B1). Organizers could use this fact as a rallying point to encourage concerned citizens to plant more trees and increase the tree cover in their communities. Potential volunteers could be reminded about the many benefits of urban trees, including energy savings, improved air quality, reduction of storm water runoff, noise reduction, wildlife habitat, beauty, and psychological well-being. Non-profit groups such as American Forests and the Sacramento Tree Foundation have information on tree planting and maintenance, as well as the benefits of urban trees. Local educators may also provide valuable information, and sometimes will involve their classes to teach them through service learning.

Another important aspect of preparing a community urban tree planting is finding funding for the activity. Money to buy, transport, plant, and care for the trees and planting equipment can come from a variety of sources, both public and private. Since many funding dollars come from public and private grants, it helps to have at least one volunteer familiar with the grant-writing process. The United States Department of Agriculture has an Urban and Community Forestry Assistance Program, which gives grants to citizen groups involved in tree planting and maintenance. Most states, including Washington, are given money from the USDA fund, which they then give out in the form of grants to community groups applying for assistance with urban forestry planting, education, research, or maintenance. The National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council provides federal money that must be matched or exceeded by non-federal sources of money and can be used for urban forestry research and tree planting or maintenance. (NUCFAC). The Global ReLeaf project gets money from public and private organizations, which it then passes on to community forestry groups through grants. The Sacramento Tree Foundation receives funding from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, and in turn provides trees, organizational assistance, and information on tree maintenance to groups and individuals planting trees. This benefits the community forestry groups, who don't have to buy their trees, and it also benefits the utility companies because the energy savings provided by the trees is reducing the need for an expensive new power plant (Summit and Sommer, 1998). Volunteers may belong to community organizations that can donate to the program, or may work for companies that donate to charitable causes. If the event is small enough, leaders might be able to find one or two philanthropists to provide all the needed money and materials. Larger events might qualify for grants from local or national organizations.

After a community forestry group has gathered and educated key people, formed a plan of action, and procured sufficient funding, it needs to consider where it will obtain and store trees and other needed materials. Trees can be bought with donated money, governmental agencies may donate trees, and nurseries may contribute some trees or provide a discount for buying large quantities. Community members may also have plants they are willing to donate for transplantation elsewhere. If a large area is being planted, it may be easier to plant many small trees than to plant a few big ones. However, in some cases, especially in areas where trees need a good head start or people want instant shade or visual impact, larger trees are planted. For instance, when Trees Atlanta places trees in business districts, members "plant large hardwood shade trees that are about 18 feet tall (3.5 inch trunk diameter)" (Trees Atlanta). Regardless of the size of tree being planted, the trees will need to be stored somewhere before being planted, and they will also need to be transported to the planting site. If the trees are small enough, they may be stored in someone's backyard. Larger trees (or larger numbers of trees) probably need to be brought to a site by truck on or near planting day. Some nurseries deliver, volunteers may have trucks, and some city agencies will donate the use of their equipment. It is also necessary to acquire tools such as shovels, mulch forks, pruning shears, and hoses or water buckets. Often, volunteers or businesses have tools that they are willing to loan out and some cities and non-profit organizations have equipment that can be borrowed by citizens. If needed tools cannot be borrowed, they can be purchased, then reused at other events. Generally, tools are small enough to be transported by individual volunteers.

Once the basic organizational plan for the event is formed, project leaders need to focus on administrative and political issues, including recruiting volunteers, selecting the species to be planted, and dealing with regulations, tree ordinances, and other legal issues.

A variety of methods are used to recruit volunteers for community tree-planting programs. Perhaps the easiest is for group leaders to ask their friends, relatives, and coworkers to help with the event. After a successful tree planting, happy participants may recruit new volunteers for the next event through word of mouth. Sometimes testimonials about the wonders of trees induce new people to participate in these programs, as happened in Celestine Laborn's neighborhood. She "told them [her neighbors] that trees bring your property value up… and help us save our energy, save on our electric bill…My sales pitch was, 'We're trying to make the neighborhood beautiful and cool it off'" (quoted in Tenusak, 1996, p.30). Her sales pitch worked, and she convinced nearly all of her neighbors to participate in a neighborhood tree planting. Occasionally, one person, with the help of media coverage, can induce hundreds of people to join his or her cause, as happened when Andy Lipkis started the community forestry group TreePeople. At age fifteen, he was tired of being told he couldn't change the world, and decided to show everyone he could accomplish something. As he recalls it "I learned that the forest where I spent my summers was being killed by the drifting smog from Los Angeles. I spent three weeks with two dozen summer camp peers working like crazy to repair a piece of the dying forest by planting smog-tolerant trees" (Lipkis, Lipkis, & TreePeople, 1990, p.XII). His well publicized, diligent efforts inspired the larger community, and soon hundreds, and eventually thousands of people began participating in community tree plantings in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Brochures, fliers, newsletters, advertisements, and radio or television appearances by organizers can all be used to increase publicity and bring volunteers to large events. Some urban or community forestry groups have web pages with pictures of their tree planting events, calendars, and contact information. In Seattle, the parks department sends out lists of local work parties looking for volunteers. Students may wish to be involved to gain community service credit and valuable experience. For small neighborhood events, participants can go door-to-door, explaining what they want to do, asking for suggestions, and persuading more people to help with the planting. Event organizers should keep in mind that people often participate in community events for social or personal reasons. The people who are happiest with their trees are often the ones who planted them during group events and who received the assistance of friends and neighbors (Sommer, Learey, Summit, & Tirrell, 1994; Summit & Sommer, 1998). Therefore, the events should offer a chance to socialize and improve neighborhoods as well as opportunities to plant trees.

After volunteers have been organized, it is important for workers to select the right kind of tree for the area to be planted. This is a complex process, but it is necessary to help ensure that the trees survive and that neighbors and businesses are happy with the trees. The most important consideration is the needs of the trees. Most trees have hardiness zones in which they thrive, and these zones tend to have similar average temperatures, elevations, and levels of wind and sun exposure. Governments and private organizations often publish lists of tree species that are well adapted to a particular zone or region, which help people to choose appropriate species. Some species, including most pines, are shade intolerant and need full sunlight to thrive, while shade tolerant species such as hemlocks or maples require shade or filtered sunlight to thrive. In some spaces, trees receive significant amounts of reflected light and heat from buildings and pavement, and only hardy trees will survive. Trees also require moisture levels which provide adequate amounts of water without flooding the trees' roots, and it is important for tree planters to remember that wind, precipitation levels, and soil type can all affect available moisture levels. Perhaps the most overlooked factor affecting tree survival is the soil in which the tree is planted. Urban soils are often heavily compacted and have poor structure and moisture holding capacities, all of which can reduce the health and life span of an urban tree. When selecting a tree, people should know whether they have an alkaline, neutral, or acidic soil, as this affects the ability of plants to grow in it. Soil depth is also important, especially in urban areas where trees are often forced into small planters, leaving little room for root growth and little soil from which to get the nutrients essential for tree growth. Finally, there should be adequate space for the tree to reach its full height and width without causing safety hazards.

Factors affecting human reactions to a tree are also an important consideration when selecting a tree. For instance, homeowners desiring a lowered energy bill may want to plant deciduous trees on the south, east, and west sides of their homes, where the trees can provide shade in the summertime and allow sunlight to reach a home in the wintertime. Aesthetics are an important part of the selection process, as people want trees that will look nice in their communities. It is generally a good idea for volunteers to visit arboretums, college campuses, or parks and greenbelts, viewing trees in various stages of development to understand what the tree will look like as it grows and when it reaches maturity. Some organizations, including the City of Seattle, keep lists of desirable and undesirable trees, including information on the mature size, growth habits, and requirements of the trees. In some areas, it is illegal to plant certain trees due to their spreading roots, lack of disease resistance, invasive potential, or other factors. When this is the case, city or county governments should have lists of the forbidden trees. Most people will want to avoid trees that drop large amounts of sap, have sidewalk-destroying roots, or otherwise create nuisances or problems for neighbors. It is generally not a good idea for everyone in an area to plant the same species of tree, so that insects or pathogens cannot destroy every tree in a neighborhood in a short period of time. In addition, people are often concerned about safety and will not want to plant large or dense stands of trees that provide hiding places.

Many cities and counties have tree ordinances that state where and how trees can be planted, or what species may be used in a public area. The regulations often set rules on tree removal, protection, planting, or replacement and specify the responsibilities of property owners, utility companies, and tree planters. For instance, as part of its tree ordinance, Los Angeles "requires all trees on city-regulated property to be planted with root barriers, which are thought to prevent lateral roots from pushing up through the pavement" (Lipkis, Lipkis, & TreePeople, 1990, p.60). Often, city and county governments require groups to get planting permits, and may require volunteers to sign agreements vowing to care for and maintain the trees they plant. In Seattle, for instance "street trees planted by the city will be maintained by the city. All other trees are to be maintained by the abutting property owner" (Seattle Transportation). People wishing to plant street trees must get a planting permit from the Seattle arborist's office, specifying where and when they will plant the trees and what species they wish to plant. Seattle residents planting street trees are also required to follow some general planting rules including having a five-foot wide (or wider) planting strip and providing fourteen feet of clearance between the tree crown and the road. Seattle street trees must be planted 3 1/2 feet back from the curb, 5 feet from underground utility lines, at least 5 feet from power poles, at least 7 1/2 feet from driveways, and 20 feet from existing trees or street lights (ibid).

In addition to tree ordinances, and depending on where and when the trees are being planted, a variety of possible legal restrictions exist, which must be dealt with by community foresters. These could be city, county, or state codes or laws, regulations on park usage and alteration, or private property rights and individual restrictions. Though it may be difficult to deal with this myriad of rules and regulations, it can be done, especially with the help of legal experts or elected officials willing to lend their expertise. Organizers may need special permission to cut pavement or concrete to make a planting hole and specially licensed operators may be needed to run certain equipment. Nearly every city also requires workers to check an area for power or utility lines before people plant trees there. In some parks or public spaces, there are rules governing who can plant vegetation, where and when it can be planted, and what species can be planted. Private property owners may have their own restrictions or may not want trees planted on their land. In order to persuade landowners to allow planting on their property, it is important for group organizers to be credible and emphasize the benefits of new trees. Tree-planting groups should work with landowners to alleviate any concerns they may have about safety or loss of use of their land. The ultimate goal of organizers should be to not just get the landowner's permission to plant trees on a site, but to involve the landowner in planting and caring for the trees.

Once all the advance planning is completed, the actual event can take place, and it, too, requires planning and organizational skills. Team leaders must know what is happening and who is involved, have a timeline of events, and above all be flexible and able to quickly solve problems and devise new solutions. Advance preparations, such as cutting pavement to create planting holes for street trees or cordoning off part of a street should be taken care of before volunteers arrive. Organizers must ensure that the right tree gets to the right place and that the people planting it know what they are doing. Volunteers should know how to safely use and handle any equipment. Organizers should make sure everyone involved has a task to accomplish and try to ensure that the participants enjoy the work. Tree planting is a social event, so providing music, refreshments, and an opportunity for people to share information is a good idea.

Since many people do not know correct methods of tree planting, it is beneficial to have a demonstration. Experts can start the event by showing proper tree planting methods, and can also be available for individual help. Proper planting methods including digging a hole 2-3 times the width, and the same depth as the tree's root ball, and orienting the tree so that it is centered and upright. It is a good idea to roughen up the sides of the hole so that root tips may penetrate the surrounding soil. The crown root, or area where the roots and stem meet, should not be covered with soil, or the base may rot and the roots may die. In particularly dry areas, a temporary watering basin should be added to concentrate water around the growing roots. Stakes or other supports should be applied only when needed, and should be made of non-abrasive material. T As soon as the tree is able to support itself, the stakes should be removed. Finally, a thick layer of mulch made of bark, leaves, wood chips, or a similar material should be added over the entire planting area except for a circle 2-3 inches from the base of the trunk.

After the planting is finished, volunteer planters often have a party to celebrate their accomplishments and discuss their follow-up plan. Reminding volunteers that "the average city tree lives only 32 years--just seven years downtown" (Gangloff, 1996, p.13) might inspire them to take good care of the trees to lengthen this short life span. The trees will need to be watered, pruned, fertilized, and generally maintained for many years. If fragile young trees are being temporarily supported with wires or bands to keep them upright, volunteers need to be sure to remove them before the wires or stakes damage the tree. In residential neighborhoods, residents can and should maintain the trees. Often, tree planters feel like Anita Belluomini, who after participating in a community tree-planting said: "There's no way I'm going to let those trees die after all the work we put into them" (quoted in Suryaraman, 1997, p. B1). In business districts, business owners and nearby residents often team up to care for the newly planted trees, pruning them annually and watering them in the dry season. Despite receiving the best of care, some trees may damage sidewalks or drop sap onto cars and sidewalks, forcing people to remove them. Other trees may succumb to death or insect invasion and need to be replaced with healthy new trees. However, choosing the proper tree species and the correct site ahead of time should alleviate this problem.

In conclusion, organizing a community tree-planting event can be a challenging but rewarding effort. Planning for and carrying out the tree planting requires a great deal of time, effort, and organization and the assistance of a dedicated group of volunteers. Project leaders must create clear goals, educate and involve community members, acquire money, trees, and other needed materials, deal with tree ordinances, select suitable tree species, and carry out the planting and follow up maintenance of the trees. Ultimately, this effort to enhance the urban forest will bring many benefits both to the planters and to future generations, making the project a worthwhile endeavor.

Works Cited

Gangloff, D. (1998). Planting One for the Millennium. American Forests 102.3 13.

Lipkis, A., Lipkis, K., & TreePeople. (1990). The Simple Act of Planting a Tree: Healing Your Neighborhood, Your City, and Your World. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.

Moll, G. & Young, S. (1992). Growing Greener Cities: A Tree-Planting Handbook. Los Angeles: Living Planet Press.

National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council. (1998). '95-'96 Annual Report. Available: http://www.treelink.org/nucfac/nf96rpt.htm

Seattle Transportation. Street Tree Planting Procedures. Available: http://www.ci.seattle.wa.us/transportation/treeplanting.htm

Sommer, R,, Learey, F., Summit, J., & Tirrell, M.(1994). Social Benefits of Resident Involvement in Tree Planting: Comparison With Developer-Planted Trees. Journal of Arboriculture 20.6 323-328.

Summit, J. & Sommer, R. (1998). Urban Tree-Planting Programs--A Model for Encouraging Environmentally Protective Behavior. Atmospheric Environment 32 1 1-5.

Suryaraman, B. (1997, July 21). Replanting Trees to Revive Communities. San Jose Mercury News. B1-B3.

Tenusak, K. (1996). Digging In. American Forests 102.3 29-32.

Trees Atlanta. Available: http://www.treesatlanta.org/

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