Moving from tree planting to tree performance

I ‘like’ American Forests page on Facebook so I receive their periodic updates.  One item that caught my eye recently was a profile article on Dr. Greg McPherson, who is an urban forestry researcher with the USDA Forest Service in Davis, CA.  Even if you don’t recognize the name, if you have even seen any statistics on the economic and environmental benefits of trees in cities (energy conservation, carbon sequestration, etc), they probably cited information for McPhereon’s studies, either directly on indirectly,

What really made me say “Amen, brother!” in the American Forest piece was McPherson’s response to the question, “What’s the biggest issue in urban forestry today?”  His reply, “Moving from the tree-planting paradigm to the tree-performance paradigm.”  Let’s face it, tree planting, for want of a better term, is sexy.  It’s relatively easy to raise money or get politicians to show up for a tree planting event and throw a few scoops of dirt with a ceremonial silver-plated shovel while the local media cameras are clicking.  

Image: Stephen Simpson/London News Pictures

But who is going to get excited about maintenance pruning? Or developing workable tree ordinances?  Or a pest management program?

Image: Susan Lesch

I’ve participated in various tree planting programs and it always gives me mixed emotions to hand out tree seedlings to second graders.  I’m glad they’re excited about getting a tree but also realize most of the seedlings that those 7-year-olds are running with will have the same lifespan as a goldfish that comes home in a plastic bag from the county fair.  Does this mean we should ban tree giveaways or planting events?  Of course not. Even if only a few seedlings survive the grubby hands of second-graders, that’s a plus and building their awareness of trees and their environment is the bigger issue.  But we also need to build public awareness of what it takes to maintain the urban forest and accrue all those benefits on the long term.  And most of those activities don’t make good photo ops or video clips for the local TV news.

In some places, we’re starting to get the message.  Here in Michigan our Department of Natural Resources awards Community Forestry grants.  The program will fund various activities but many grants are for tree planting.  If the application is for tree planting, the applicant must include a description of the maintenance practices that will be used to ensure the long-term success of the planting – forcing applicants to think about what happens after the trees are planted.  In addition the program also requires that applicants plant a diversity of species to help reduce issues with monocultures.  Small steps, but the ones we need to take to move from the tree planting paradigm to the tree performance paradigm. 

20 thoughts on “Moving from tree planting to tree performance”

  1. All god points, but let’s also remember to think about what we pl
    ant and how. Most of he trees I’ve seen were rootbound with girdlers throughout the pot, then got planted too deep and volcano mulched.

    Studies show that young trees establish quicker than big ones and catch up in a few years. Given that they also are cheaper and less likely to be rootbound, we should be planting more five-gallon trees and fewer 50-gallon specimens. It may not be as satisfying today, but we will all benefit tomorrow. Then we just have to work on that mulch thing some more . . . .

  2. Oh, my gosh! This topic is huge!!! I like that Michigan’s DNR is requiring people to think about maintenance. Capital improvements are so appealing (who doesn’t like planting a tree, and being photographed doing it?), and maintenance and management are so unsexy – but once a tree is decently planted in the ground, the long-term care of it will often determine its long-term viability. For designers, a well-maintained landscape can be a great selling point (our landscapes are our calling cards, essentially, and our in-the-world portfolios); a poorly-maintained landscape has the opposite effect. Over the years I have seen urban orchards getting planted here in Boston, to great fanfare — and also seen the horrific neglect they suffer once the trees are in place. When the romance of the idea (Let’s plant an orchard!) can’t be supported by a robust long-term maintenance plan and its execution, the trees do poorly, a place looks bad, the whole idea of edible landscapes seems like a bust, and we look like knuckleheads.
    It makes a ton of sense to advocate for the development and adoption of maintenance protocols right at the outset, and not to plant anything requiring maintenance (at least in urban areas) that can’t or won’t be maintained over the long haul. Some institutions require that donated funds for tree planting include a large sum to be put in an endowment for maintenance. That’s a good way to go, because it ensures that a maintenance dept. has the funds to take care of these living organisms that only get bigger every year. OK, my rant stops here. Bert, thanks for raising such an important issue!

  3. Keith,
    I hope my comments didn’t come across that I’m against planting small trees. My point was directed at the fact that people (including 2nd graders) get excited about the idea of planting trees but don’t think about the long-term care needs. It often makes more sense to plant a few smaller trees that one big one, especially for cash-strapped municipalities.

  4. Great post! In my garden, I am always coming up against the maintenance issue, especially since I am on a small urban lot. Unfortunately, it is something that is regularly forgotten in the planning process. Here in Norther Virginia we have requirements about canopy cover – in short, no removal of living trees without a replacement – (which is great because we have great coverage for such a populous area) but no requirements about tree maintenance. We moved into a new place last year and on our .16 acre lot, we had three large trees and a fourth that overshadows us. One of them had to be removed because it was dead, two of them had to be severely trimmed, and the one that overshadows our lot needs trimming/thinning but is on our neighbors property. The two pin oaks we had trimmed are 70+ year old trees that easily reach 65 feet and the dead cherry was close to 60 feet tall. In our immediate area, there are dozens of large trees that need trimming and several that need to be removed (dead or dying). Unfortunately, nothing will happen with the vast majority of these trees until they fall on someone’s house. Or, when it does happen, it is the power company destroying a tree for “safety” and “reliability” reasons!

    Personally, I wish that more emphasis would be put on eventual size and maintenance requirements when landscapes are planted. While having the large oaks are wonderful, the number in my neighborhood is too great and limits the number of other species that are able to survive. I am currently in the process of adding some smaller native understory trees and shrubs to my lot thanks to the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservatory (who sale native trees once a year cheaply).


  5. I say if something need to be trimmed, it is too big for the allocated space. Anyway, I think the biggest problems for urban trees are soil compaction and root girdling, something that most people seem to be completely ignorant about, including the so-called landscape professionals. Sometimes I feel sorry for those urban trees, but it’s amazing how they persevere, until they just can’t take it anymore.

  6. What kind of a positive experience is it anyhow for 2nd graders to plant a tree and have it die? I really dislike big concept events that don’t think about what’s needed for long-term success.

  7. Thanks all for the comments. Thad, your comment speaks to the need for workable tree ordinances. Some communities require replacing equivalent caliper (i.e., if you take out a 12″ tree you need to plant four 3″ trees. If the property won’t accommodate that many trees, the extras are planted in parks of other community property). Regarding Removal Company’s comment, I think some of the power outages in the Northeast last winter educated many about the value of proper tree pruning and maintenance. Unfortunately, there has also been some backlash against tree planting as a result. Lastly, I will put in my usual defense of utility arborists. My experience is that these are among the most highly trained and professional people involved with tree care – they have to be to work around high-voltage power lines. Their ultimate responsibility is uninterrupted power for the utilities’ customers. In some cases the best option to meet that goal is tree removal but if a tree is on private property and the owner won’t agree to remove the tree, directional pruning or other techniques have to be used, often to the dismay of the arborist.

  8. Karen S. I tend to agree with you. I suppose the counter is that it’s a numbers game. If we give away a thousand trees and 100 of them actually end up in the ground and 10 of those make it to maturity, we’re still ahead. Would be interested to hear of other’s experiences. Ever plant a tree from a giveaway that’s still around? Or know someone who has?

  9. Ever plant a tree from a giveaway that’s still around?


    Yes. I have a 20 foot red pine and a 25 foot white pine that I planted around 20 years ago from an environmental group giveaway. 2 planted and 2 lived.

  10. @Bert no, I was speaking in general terms–I didn’t mean to imply you were on the “other side.”

    @Michael public tree plantings tend to get lousy stock. The necessary pruning is not to reduce a tree’s size, per se. The goal is to eliminate problems that came from the nursery–primarily, tight crotches with included bark. If we deal with these problems two years after installation, we can spend a few minutes on each tree. Ignore them for a couple of decades and we end up with either a lawsuit from someone who got hit by falling branches or a really expensive pruning project to deal with what has become a huge problem.

  11. Yes Keith, by “trimming” I was referring to reducing the size of a tree which
    I find to be a very bad strategy, especially when it involves topping. Corrective pruning is a completely different thing that I have no problem with. I also agree with you that planting younger trees is better and I wish nurseries would offer more of those. Unfortunately most customers seem to prefer “instant” results (even if it takes years for the tree to establish) and they don’t seem to mind paying for it.

  12. Apparently, some of us are stewards of the environment at early ages. I was one of those 2nd graders (and 3rd and 4th) who carefully brought her Douglas Fir tree home for planting. Each one of them was lovingly planted in the best long-term location we could find. 35+ years later, it hurt terribly when my parents sold their property and the first thing that was done was the developer cleared the property of all the trees. In 2007 my husband and I purchased 2 acres not far from my parents old place. We have planted trees every year, fruiting, flowering, ornamental, we wanted plenty of trees that would also support wildlife in our area. There were aready a number of trees on our property with a 250 foot row of conifers on one side alone but we know that as along as we are living on this property, the trees will be safe and well cared for (except for those the buck has taken out while removing his velvet .. usually my fruit trees). So you see, if even one out of every 10 children that receive those free trees is able to plant them they may just become like me … stewards for the environment and wildlife. I know I’m doing my best to teach my boys to do exactly that.

  13. My love of plants started around the same time, maybe 3rd or 4th grade, but what did the trick for me was a bean seed that I took home from school to grow on a piece of wet cotton as part of my homework. Later on, I turned our apartment balcony into a potted vegetable garden. I even grew some wheat and oats there just out of sheer curiosity. But a love of plants isn’t enough to take care of trees properly. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I had my own yard that I learned about things like root spread and girdling and how important it is to plant trees at the proper depth.

  14. I remember in 4th grade my school had a tree planting ceremony. It taught us a lesson about the environment but I don’t think that tree survived. In my own neighborhood, trees are planted but not taken care of by the township, who planted them. We have to remember the after planting care part.

  15. And to think that Million Tree planting schemes that are currently taking place in large municipalities like NYC (to occur between 2007-2015) have no aspect of long-term care. Most disturbing is that any clause that would have protected those trees was removed from the project. The question now to be asked is what occurs after tree no. 1 million? We anticipate here business as usual by City government. Plant the street tree and then walk away.

  16. This is an excellent post about an important, but often ignored or poorly understood, topic.

    Would you consider allowing me to reprint your article on my blog? We cover similar issues, and this is such an eloquent discussion, I know our audience would appreciate reading it.

  17. And thanks Bryan, Catherine, Michael, and Michele for sharing your tree planting stories. I suppose at the end of the day the ultimate goal of tree giveaways is promoting awareness of trees in our communities. Now if we can just add proper after-care to the message…

  18. What is considered a small tree for planting?
    My local nursery sells 6-7’ trees in 10 gallon pots. I thought those were huge. Am I wrong? When we talk about planting younger and smaller trees, what does that mean specifically?

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