Armed with saplings and shovels, a group of dedicated volunteers helps beautify the streets of north Philadelphia.
By Sari Harrar | Photographs By Rob Cardillo
Rob Lihotz and Robert Frost distribute tools.
“I want a shovel!” shouts Brigid McAteer, age 4, as her family helps load a pickup truck with tools, mulch, and trees. “I want this tree!” yells her sister, Melaney, age 6. Their mother, Anne McAteer, lifts bareroot crabapples and elms into the truck bed. “Our Girl Scout troop does a service project once a month,” explains McAteer. “My mother’s here too. She started a troop when I was little; now I’m doing it with my girls.”
The McAteers are part of a small army of about 100 volunteers gathered in November 2015 to plant 135 trees along the stark streets of Philadelphia’s Kensington, East Kensington, and Fishtown neighborhoods. This is the 16th biennial planting organized by Philly Tree People, an active PHS-trained Tree Tenders group that has added more than 1,200 trees to the urban landscape in zip codes 19125, 19133, and 19134.
Steam rises from a giant mulch pile. The brown and silver-gray bark of the trees gleams in the autumn sunshine. Volunteers grab gloves and maps, ready for a morning of messy fun. Soon the McAteer clan—along with the girls’ grandmother, Mary Pier—are digging pits along Frankford Avenue and Somerset Street, gently lowering each tree into place, backfilling the holes, and then adding supports and a layer of mulch. “We found a giant rock!” Melaney exclaims. “We’re cleaning up,” adds Brigid as the sisters energetically sweep the sidewalk.
Mary shovels mulch.
Digging holes for trees can be fun even for adults, as Mike Leonescu, 22, and Michael Garfinkle, 18, two Temple University students, quickly learn. They arrange a Triumph elm (Ulmus ‘Morton Glossy’) in the hole so that its branches will grow parallel to the sidewalk rather than sticking out in pedestrians’ faces. “It’s worth getting up early for this,” says Garfinkle, who signed up for the planting as part of his landscape architecture class.
Using the proper planting methods is important to help ensure that the trees will be enjoyed well into the future. “Maybe in 100 years these hybrid elms will be arching over Frankford Avenue, making a nice green gateway,” says Nick Fury, who leads a small planting group as cars, motorcycles, and the SEPTA No. 5 bus rumble by. “If these trees can survive the traffic, the people, and the tough city conditions, this neighborhood will become more beautiful and more serene. That’s our goal. And we’re already seeing results as trees we planted years ago survive and thrive.”
In 2007 three women who had recently moved to East Kensington longed for greenery outside their front doors—especially in the space between the sidewalk and street, where the city forbids homeowners from planting trees on their own. Nykia Perez Kibler and Jacelyn Blank met at an East Kensington Neighborhood Association meeting and decided to attend a PHS Tree Tenders class, and there they met another neighbor, Dina Richman. The three formed the core of a group that became Philly Tree People. “We could get 10 trees for free, so we put ads in local newspapers to interest other homeowners,” recalls Kibler, a University of Pennsylvania librarian. “That’s how our first planting got started. My tree was a honey locust, and today it’s three stories tall.” Richman, an entomologist, planted two maples in front of her home and says they are “absolutely beautiful” today.
Amanda Fury instructs her team on best practices.
In the beginning, Blank says, her involvement was simply about improving aesthetics on city streets. But she and the others soon learned that trees offer many benefits. “Adding a canopy of trees in city neighborhoods brings refuge from the hot sun in summer and helps keep cooling costs down,” she says. “Trees aid in reducing pollution and increase property value.” Trees also help reduce stormwater overflows in the city’s sewer system and provide a home for birds and other wildlife, Kibler adds. “And I also think a street with trees is a safer street,” she says, with people who pay more attention to their surroundings and to their neighbors. “There are so many good reasons to plant trees,” Blank says.
PHS Tree Tenders is one of the oldest, most respected volunteer urban tree planting and stewardship programs in the world, offering hands-on tree care training covering biology, identification, planting methods, and maintenance. More than 100 groups in various communities throughout Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania lead the way in organizing tree plantings that are regreening the region.
Philly Tree People has emerged as one of the most productive and inspiring of these groups, says Dana Dentice, manager of the Plant One Million project, a PHS-led regional partnership with a goal to plant 1 million trees throughout 13 counties in southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. “The 4,000 trained Tree Tenders in our area plant more than 2,000 trees annually,” Dentice says. “Like the other active groups, Philly Tree People holds bareroot tree plantings twice a year, in the spring and fall, and it ranks right behind University City Green for most trees planted by any group.” In neighborhoods like Fishtown and Kensington, less than 3 percent of the land has tree cover. “We want to get that up to 30 percent,” Dentice says.
Planting is only the first step for fledgling trees: Aftercare is essential to the survival of any specimen—especially one on the street. “Homeowners who apply for street trees through Tree Tenders get information on maintaining them,” says Richman. Tasks include giving new trees 15 to 20 gallons of water a week during the growing season. Mulching—to discourage competition from weeds and to hold moisture in the ground—is also crucial in an unforgiving urban environment where trees are planted in a column of soil surrounded by pavement. “For a new tree, mulch should be 3 inches deep, starting 3 inches away from the bark of the tree and extending for 3 feet,” explains master gardener Maryanne Seifert, who dispensed tree care advice as volunteers gathered before the November tree planting.
Hot beverages, pastries, and a fire pit helped dispel the morning chill.
Philly Tree People runs a monthly pruning club that teaches the art and science of tree pruning and lets participants practice on street trees in need of a trim. These volunteers play a critical role in taking care of the urban forest, Kibler says. “We remove diseased, damaged, and dead branches, and we prune for clearance so branches don’t poke people in the eye or scratch their cars. We try to have no branches lower than 9 feet if they’re hanging over the sidewalk.”
One subset of Philly Tree People keeps trees watered in the summer by using a home-built, mobile watering system that sits in the back of a pickup truck. “We water stressed trees that need help,” says Amanda Fury, who also works on the twice-yearly plantings with her husband, Nick. “The fall planting is usually on or near our wedding anniversary, and it’s a great way for us to celebrate with friends. When the planting’s done, we all go to the Philadelphia Brewing Company for lunch.”
Thanks to all the tender loving care provided by homeowners and volunteer Tree Tenders, the street trees have a high survival rate. “We’re not just planting wherever and hoping for the best,” Kibler says. “People have requested the trees and are taking care of them, and we’re there as backup.”
Homeowners have several ways to get street trees in Philadelphia, says Mindy Maslin, project manager of the Tree Tenders program: “You can hire an arborist and pay for the tree and planting costs yourself, or apply directly to the city or to a Tree Tenders group for a free tree.” For city-supplied trees, the application process begins months in advance—for example, applications for spring 2017 Tree Tenders street tree plantings in Philadelphia are due this November.
Amanda Fury points to the root flare to show volunteers how deep to plant.
A coalition of tree-minded organizations makes sure the process runs smoothly. Arborists from Philadelphia Parks and Recreation visit each site to choose the right plant for the location. PHS pays for the trees and for the removal of sidewalk to prepare the planting spaces. Free mulch is brought in from Fairmount Park Organic Recycling Center. Tree tenders groups do local fundraising to pay for tools, gloves, and snacks. Homeowners sign an agreement that they will help care for their new greenery. “Our program provides bareroot trees, which are lighter and easier to handle than balled-and-burlapped trees,” Maslin says. “Research shows that these have 200 percent more root area than balled trees, so they establish themselves faster for better survival.” But the sweat equity of volunteers in the Tree Tenders program is the real secret weapon, she adds. “When trees are planted by neighbors, they get better care than they would if they were planted without community involvement.”
Back at the planting in November, Nicole Moore, who recently bought a house in the city’s Port Richmond section, is on hand to help put her new cherry tree in the ground. “I’m so excited,” Moore says. “I grew up on a farm but never planted a tree before.”
Meanwhile, Nick Fury’s crew makes a surprising discovery while digging a hole in the sidewalk along tiny Coral Street to make room for a new crabapple. “We found big old tree roots,” he says. “There was a tree here before, and now there will be one again.”
Join the Effort
Throughout Philadelphia and across southeastern Pennsylvania, more than 100 Tree Tenders groups care for urban greenery, sponsor volunteer-driven fall and spring tree plantings, and help homeowners acquire street trees. Find a group near you by logging on to phsonline.org/programs/tree-tenders/tree-tenders-maps. Here are a few noteworthy groups and facts.
Oldest: Oak Lane Tree Tenders formed in 1993, with founders from PHS’s original Tree Tenders training class.
Newest in Philly: Association of Puerto Ricans on the March, Zion Pentecostal Church of God of New Direction, and Chestnut Hill Tree Tenders groups all held their first plantings in the spring of 2016.
Newest in the suburbs: Tree Tenders groups in West Rockhill Township and Upper Gwynedd Township hosted their inaugural tree plantings this past spring too.
Biggest area covered in Philly: The territory of Northeast Tree Tenders encompasses 50.8 square miles.
Most trees planted: UC Green Tree Tenders has planted more than 4,000 trees in University City since it formed in the early 1990s.
Oldest leader: Mary Lou Jennings, 88, of Lansdowne Tree Tenders, never misses any of the group’s events!
Most ambitious project: Abington Tree Tenders has done a recent inventory of all street trees in the township’s commercial area.
Most Arbor Days celebrated: East Falls Tree Tenders has held 21 annual programs. In 2016, 140 children from Thomas Mifflin School, William Penn Charter School, and Wissahickon Charter School celebrated trees and nature through poetry, songs, and other activities.
To support the Tree Tenders or plant a tree, go to phsonline.org/giving.
Sari Harrar writes for national magazines including O, the Oprah Magazine and Real Simple. She lives and gardens in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Life on the Street
Street trees are the ultimate urban survivors. Planted between the sidewalk and street, they’re prone to damage from pedestrians, pets, and vehicles and are surrounded by paved surfaces. To keep yours healthy and looking its best, remember these hints from PHS experts.
Water well. Give a newly planted street tree at least 15 to 20 gallons of water a week from March until the ground freezes in winter; in hot weather, your tree may need twice as much. To make sure water soaks into the soil rather than running off onto the sidewalk, put a trickling hose (or bucket of water with very small holes in the bottom) at the base of the tree.
Protect soil. Compacted soil doesn’t allow air, water, and nutrients to reach plants’ roots. Don’t walk, drive, or put trash cans near the tree, and never cement over the tree pit. Weed and clean the area around the tree to remove competing plants as well as toxics like pet waste, motor oil, and deicing salt. Loosen the first few inches of soil before mulching (see below), but do it gently so you don’t harm woody roots.
Mulch well. After weeding and loosening soil, apply 3 inches of mulch—but not within 3 inches of the tree trunk. You can plant annual flowers like marigolds and begonias, but skip perennials—as they grow, they’ll take up nutrients your tree needs. Don’t fertilize a newly planted tree, because it can send the tree into shock.
Shield bark. Keep car doors, bikes, pets, and lawn equipment away to prevent damage to bark. Remove tree stakes and straps a year after planting so they don’t cut into the bark.
Prune early. Removing dead, diseased, or damaged branches will get new trees off to a healthy start.