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Million Trees growth depends on future volunteers

It's up to neighbors to make sure city's new plantings survive hot summers and other cruelties of urban life

The caked dirt surface at the base of the gingko tree on Gold Street in lower Manhattan resembled cement – devoid of color and rough to the touch. The tree looked healthy enough for a two-year-old, but Samuel Bishop, the education director at Trees New York, a nonprofit training and stewardship group, knew it was in trouble. “The trees in this city are really vulnerable to foot traffic and then this happens,” he said, stomping on the dirt for emphasis. “No water can get down to the roots.”

Five years ago, the Bloomberg administration and nonprofit New York Restoration Project launched MillionTreesNYC, a planting campaign to green the streets, parks and backyards of New York City, is well on its way to reaching the goal for which it was named. In fact, it is ahead of schedule, with nearly 600,000 new trees planted in just five years. By the time the planting is done, in 2017 or so, one out of every five of the new trees will be situated on city streets.

But unlike the trees being planted in parks and on private property, street trees do not have a specific city agency or property owner in charge of their care. Instead, Trees New York and a handful of other nonprofit organizations have stepped forward, with the help of modest grants from MillionTreesNYC, to encourage New Yorkers to volunteer and take care of the street trees themselves. But only a few thousand have been adopted so far, and not all of them are getting the level of care they need to thrive and grow.

With hot temperatures here, street trees need more care than at any other time of the year. During summer, a tree can lose a quarter inch of water per day. The youngest saplings are particularly prone to early death. A study of more than 13,000 trees planted by the city between 1999 and 2003 found that by 2007, some 3,400 of them were either dead or missing. It also concluded that when there were signs that someone was taking care of the tree – cultivating the soil, or installing seating – chances increased that a young tree would survive and grow.

To make sure that trees succeed this time around, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation asked the private landscaping companies under contract to plant for MillionTreesNYC to provide maintenance and care — including one inch of water per week, pruning and cultivation — for two years, the most critical time in a tree’s early life. But the new trees’ survival is ultimately in the hands of local caretakers: residents, business owners and anyone else with an interest in the trees’ welfare.

Lucian Reynolds, a project manager at Trees New York, said a tree is strong by this time and can survive and thrive with minimal care. Still, New York City is a tough place for even the most resilient tree.

“Automobiles smacking into it, people pulling off branches, exposing the bark to insect infestation, there are many factors that adversely affect trees in an urban environment,” he said.

Contractors have planted more than 80,000 street trees like this one in Flatbush, Brooklyn - but then it's up to neighbors to make sure they thrive. Photo: Chris Kreussling/Flickr

That’s where Stewardship Corps comes in. This MillionTreesNYC volunteer-organizing campaign encourages New Yorkers to adopt trees and care for them, especially in their fragile first two years of life. More than 650,000 street trees new and old are up for adoption, and about 5,000 now have volunteer caretakers.

In Harlem, Kevin Lotz, a social work director at a homeless shelter, adopted two sawtooth oaks on his East Harlem block in 2009 through Stewardship Corps. He said it took just 15 minutes to sign up online. “Most of that was selecting which trees I wanted,” he said. He also provided his address and indicated whether he had ever attended a tree stewardship workshop (he hadn’t).

Since then, Lotz’s trees have tripled in size. He spends up to two hours a month caring for them, devoting much of that time to clearing trash and debris. The most laborious task is watering in the summer, which he does at least one a month. For each round, he travels back and forth between his apartment and the trees down the street with a gallon jug of water 15 times or more.

The process to adopt a tree is now even more streamlined: MillionTreesNYC asks only for an email address. Not every newly adoptive parent is as devoted as Lotz, and some trees that appear as adopted on the city’s map get no care at all. Reynolds says that other well-meaning caretakers are inadequately trained. They make easily avoidable mistakes, he says, like not watering enough or planting invasive vines.

Good horticulture, he says, begins with proper care of the tree bed. He demonstrates on the ill-treated gingko tree downtown. With the repeated swings of a small ax, Bishop and Reynolds cracked the compacted soil and unearthed a rich, dark layer underneath. Both men then raked the soil, sometimes with their bare hands, mixing and loosening it in preparation for watering. They left a noticeable pit immediately surrounding the base of the tree so that it looked as if it were planted in the middle of a doughnut.

“If you pile up the dirt around the base of the tree, watering doesn’t work,” Bishop said. “This is one of the most common mistakes people make.”

Bishop topped off his work with some flowers, a visual indicator to passersby to keep off the dirt, and covered the tree bed in mulch to preserve moisture. He estimated cultivation like this needs to be done as often as twice a month, depending on the tree and the foot traffic in a neighborhood.

Trees New York offers optional workshops to those who want to volunteer. Yet the group, which has been around since 1978 and also plants its own trees, has limited funds to devote to training volunteers to care for the city’s new plantings. In 2010, its total budget was just $325,000, only a tiny fraction of which comes from MillionTreesNYC.

Volunteers seeking training can also take free workshops sponsored by MillionTreesNYC. The next session takes place on July 28 at Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island.

Reynolds said it is important to start good stewardship habits early because even a seemingly strong tree can suffer without a helping hand.

“Older trees do die,” he said. “A mature tree might go through a season with very little water or care, but over time you’ll see the negative effects of that.”