There are a lot of myths about obtaining, maintaining, and caring for trees in the city. But first – let’s talk about why trees are so important. Trees are a necessity, providing habitat for local wildlife, reducing stormwater runoff, and helping cool down temperatures during warmer summer months. They’ve also been proven to improve mental health and reduce crime.
PHS is committed to increasing the level of tree canopy (the area of land with trees), especially in neighborhoods with few trees and high average temperatures. “Good” tree canopy coverage is considered to be 30% of the land area. In the City of Philadelphia, some neighborhoods have as little as 2.5%.
While there is an application process to obtain a tree for your neighborhood, it’s easy to get started once you know the steps. For street trees, your local PHS Tree Tenders and the PHS Trees Team will work with you to obtain the right permits, prepare the plot where your tree will go (including free concrete removal if needed), and answer any questions about the process.
What is the difference between a street tree and a yard tree? Whereas a yard tree is planted in the ground on private property, a street tree is planted along sidewalks or other public rights-of-way. We’ll primarily focus on street trees here, but you can learn more about how to get a yard tree by visiting treephilly.org.
Street trees have been given a bad reputation because of the misconception that planting a tree will ruin pipes, sidewalks, and infrastructure. However, when the right tree is chosen for the right space and planted properly, the tree will grow without disturbing its surroundings.
For example, the job of a tree’s roots is to look for water sources, so if a pipe has already cracked or burst, the roots of a tree are going to find that water source and use it. But a tree will never destroy pipes that are in good condition. Most tree roots are within 18" of the surface, while most Philly sewer laterals are six feet down.
In the city of Philadelphia, property owners can apply through PHS for up to 3 street trees twice a year (six total!) -- the timing is around early May to be planted in November, and again in late November to be planted in April of the following year. Here’s how to apply:
Step 1: It’s important to review the Philadelphia Tree Planting Policies & Priorities on PHS’s website. It will give you an overview of what you can expect PHS and partners to provide, and what homeowners can expect to be responsible for.
Step 2: From there, you’ll want to reach out to your local PHS Tree Tenders group. PHS Tree Tenders is a network of trained community volunteers who plant and maintain trees in neighborhoods across the Philadelphia region. Working directly with your neighborhood group makes the application process more seamless.
If your neighborhood does not have a PHS Tree Tenders group, take PHS’s Tree Tender course with at least 2 neighbors, form a new group, and then you will be eligible to submit tree applications from your neighborhood.
Step 3: If you're an individual property owner looking to apply for a street tree, fill out an application here. The application includes: the desired location for the tree, the number of trees you’re requesting, pavement removal needs, and details about what is needed for a tree to thrive. For example, you’ll need at least 3x3 feet for a tree pit and the new tree location cannot block existing driveways or intersections.
There is a limited number of free trees available each season, and the applications are evaluated based on your neighborhood’s overall tree canopy and other priorities. If you can’t get a tree during the bi-annual applications, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department accepts applications on a rolling basis; visit: treephilly.org or call 215-685-4363.
Step 4: If your application is approved, a member of PHS’s Tree Team will arrange for free cutting and removal of pavement as needed and procure your tree in advance of one of the seasonal plantings. A city arborist will inspect all sites to make sure they're appropriate for trees and will assign a tree species that will work in that space. If there’s an existing stump or roots, it’s the property owner’s responsibility to remove the stump from the pit location.
Step 5: On the day of planting, your local Tree Tenders group will come to plant the tree and leave you with a care guide to make sure the tree thrives in the years to come!
Tree maintenance is straightforward and simple once you know what to do. PHS has many resources for homeowners caring for trees in their first few years of growth.
In its first year after planting, regular watering is crucial for a tree’s survival. Newly planted trees require 15 - 20 gallons of water per week (equivalent to about 1” of rainfall) from March until the leaves drop, and as often as twice per week during hot or dry weather. If your tree is planted in the fall, keep watering weekly until the ground freezes (even once the leaves have dropped).
The most common watering solution is using a 5-gallon bucket. Make sure to poke holes at the bottom, then fill your bucket with water and it will seep slowly. If you have a hose, you can leave it in the pit on a slow drip setting. Leave it on slow drip for several hours until the tree pit is thoroughly moist.
It’s important not to water your tree all at once, as this will only penetrate the top of the soil and is not the best choice for watering the roots. You’ll also want to make sure to water the entire root system. Remember that as the tree grows, so do its roots! Be sure to water throughout the pit and not just up against the tree. After the tree is established, supplemental water may still be useful during times of drought or when the tree shows signs of stress such as wilting.
Soil compaction is one of the main causes of tree failure. When soil is too compact, there are no air pockets in the soil, also known as macropores. Macropores allow for the movement of oxygen, water, and soil-dwelling organisms that are vital for roots to survive.
You can help avoid this by loosening the soil with a handheld cultivator or digging gently with your hands. Don’t worry about smaller roots but try to avoid larger woody roots. If you see any large clumps of soil, carefully break them apart with your hands. Keeping your tree pit mulched will also help with soil quality and structure.
It’s also important to avoid putting heavy objects on or around the tree’s root system. Weeds and trash can keep water from reaching the tree's roots, so it’s important to weed the tree pit and remove any trash in the area. You can protect your tree by putting a small barrier or sign to deter trash and disposal of dangerous chemicals such as de-icing salts, motor oil, and pet urine.
Some pruning is good to do while the tree is established but still small, such as clearance and structural pruning -- this prevents later issues!
You can contact your local Tree Tenders group for pruning needs on recently planted trees. Many neighborhoods have pruning clubs that regularly work on their Tree Tenders-planted trees. For mature trees, reach out to an arborist.
If you’re not ready or able to have a tree but want to get involved, PHS Tree Tenders are always looking for more volunteers! Our PHS Tree Tenders training course is available multiple times a year. You can also volunteer at one of our bi-annual plantings.
For folks out in the burbs, program offerings vary by suburban community. To find out what your neighborhood offers, reach out to your local Tree Tenders group or PHS’s Tree Team.