Our Urban Forest

Growing Boston Even Greener: the stewards of Boston's trees need you.

There is a story in the Talmud of Honi, a wise man. One day he was out walking when he saw a man planting carob tree seeds. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take before you can eat the fruit of these trees?”

 “Seventy years,” was the answer. 

Honi smiled. “And you think that you are going to live long enough to harvest that fruit?”

The man sat back from his work for a moment. “Probably not. But all my life I have harvested fruit from carob trees that were planted by my grandfather and my father. Now I am planting seeds so that my children and grandchildren will have trees.”

The urban forest of Boston -- the trees and shrubs that make up 29 percent of our city -- was largely planted by our fathers and grandfathers. Trees are among the longest-living structures on earth, but the kinds of trees we have in Boston often measure their lives in decades, and many are coming to an end.

Does it matter? Do we need trees? Why should we care? And what can we do if we do care?

Well, it does matter.  Trees help make Boston a good place to live!  

Some ways trees help our city

  • Trees make our city healthier by removing pollutants, cleaning the air. In one small urban park, tree cover was found to remove daily 48 lbs particulates, 9 lbs nitrogen dioxide, 6 lbs sulfur dioxide, and 1/2 lbs carbon monoxide. (These trees are working for us 24/7!)
  • Trees lessen the urban heat island syndrome, (that’s when urban streets and buildings heat up 6 to 8 degrees more than rural areas, and hold that heat). Trees can reduce that syndrome – and the energy costs that go with it -- by cooling the city through shade and through transpiration (that’s when trees and other plants release moisture  through their leaves).
  • Trees help manage storm water; they are so effective at absorbing storm water that some people think of them as a kind of beneficial storm sewer. They slow the flow of water, reduce topsoil erosion and keep pollutants from getting into our waterways. Trees are just natural pollution filters; they actually make use of nutrients in run-off like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that would pollute streams.
  • Trees save the city money by extending the life of asphalt.  When exposed to the sun, the oil in asphalt volatizes and streets eventually need to be repaved. Streets with lots of trees need to be repaved half as often as those exposed to full sun, so trees can help reduce the city’s budget!
  • Trees raise property values. (Everybody seems to agree about that, but the evidence about how much trees increase property values is all over the place: 6 percent in a study in Manchester, CT, 18 percent in Rochester, NY, and so on.)

And then there are all the other benefits that seem harder to measure: that trees calm us, create a sense of well being (hospital patients with a view of trees recover more quickly and with fewer complications than patients similar in other ways); trees invite people out-of-doors to exercise and socialize. Trees attract birds and add beauty to our lives.

Some studies have found that having trees in the neighborhood reduces aggression, and in one study girls who see greenery outside their windows are able to concentrate better. (I have to say, these sociological studies drive my physicist husband crazy; he keeps muttering about all the unknown variables). But on some intuitive level these studies make sense to me, so I’m leaving them in.

We know without the benefit of studies that trees are significant to us.  In the Jewish calendar trees even rate a special holiday, Tu B’Shevat, sometimes called the birthday of the trees. This year it falls on Feb. 7.

Rabbi Victor Hillel Reinstein of JP’s speaks of the tree as a metaphor for life as it should be: blossoming, fruitful, full of color. Trees give and receive, responding to careful pruning with even more fruit. He calls attention to the reference in Deuteronomy 20:19 about the ancient laws of warfare which provide that when a siege is laid to a city, the trees of the field should not be destroyed.  The mystics claim that the Biblical Hebrew term translated “the trees of the field” refers also to human life, and the rabbi suspects they may be on to something, that even beneath these “rules of warfare” there is a current running against the taking of any life – botanical or human.

We can probably all agree that in spite of the leaves they drop for us to rake up and the , that trees are a blessing; they are one of the good things about our Boston home. But because so many of our Boston trees are aging, I return to the question: how can we replace them or add more?

Ways to Increase Boston’s Urban Forest

There are several ways that we can add trees to our city lives:

  • plant a tree on private property,
  • request a street tree be planted in front of your home,
  • get a community group or groups to take on the stewardship of a pair of heirloom apple trees through the Boston Tree Party,
  • or get a grant for multiple trees through the newly reinvigorated Grow Boston Greener.   

Of all the ways to add trees, planting a tree in your own yard  is probably the fastest way (and if you do plant a tree be sure to let Grow Boston Greener know so that it can be counted in the tree census).  If you really want to make a difference in the urban forest in your community, Grow Boston Greener could get you the most trees – especially if you are planting them in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a lot of trees now. Joining the Boston Tree Party is probably the most fun.

The Boston Tree Party offers you not only trees and knowledge about how to plant and care for them, but also participation in a celebratory community experience (that’s the party).  In fact, the real purpose of the Tree Party is not just about the urban forest or orchard or even the healthy apples in generations to come; it is “a socially engaged participatory social and culture public art project in service of positive social change.” And you get the trees and the future apples, too.

In its first year The Boston Tree Party has brought excitement and panache – and music and banners! -- to the planting of over fifty different pairs of heirloom apple trees by an amazing variety of organizations in communities around Boston, creating places of beauty, increasing participants’ confidence in working with the land, and helping to create energy and stewardship in communities. Participants (they’re called delegations) pay for the trees; some powerful Boston institutions have signed on. JP's had a tree planting complete with apple strudel, an apple-themed sing-along, and apple blossom pins for everyone. 

Jeff Kasowitz, City Year Senior Director, is a mover in the Hybrid Vigor organization that launched the Tree Party.  He feels the Tree Party provides an engaging means for cross-pollination among Boston’s various communities. (Kasowitz, who lives on McBride Street in JP, knows first-hand that thing about one generation enjoying the trees another planted. The 100-foot Norway spruce in his yard was planted long ago by his neighbor’s grandfather!)

Grow Boston Greener is a collaboration between government and private philanthropy that has as its goal planting 100,000 new trees in Boston by the year 2020, with a special emphasis on areas of the city that do not have many trees now. Planting those new trees will increase our urban tree canopy from 29 to 35 percent and make Boston a cooler, cleaner, healthier city for us – and future generations -- to live in. 

The Grow Boston Greener program began a few years ago and then faltered when funding withered. Then, as Valerie Burns of the Boston Natural Areas Network explained, when no other specific effort was made to expand the urban forest, BNAN stepped in to convene a city-wide council of advocates and activists, to resurrect and revitalize the Urban Forestry Council and to get the Grow Boston Greener tree grant program going again.

Under the direction of Matthew Cahill of BNAN, the program has once again begun to help community groups plant and maintain trees in their neighborhoods. Groups can apply for mini-grants that cover the cost of the trees, delivery, stakes and ties, mulch, and even tree gators at roughly a cost of $300 a tree. (Unlike the Boston Tree Party package, there are no flags, plaques, or buttons.) The maximum grant is $2,500.

The species available range from a small lilac tree with fragrant white blossoms to a tree that will grow to be a 100-ft American elm (a disease-resistant variety).  There are edible fruit and nut trees as well -- yes, it is possible to grow apricots here in Jamaica Plain! You just have to find a way to keep ahead of the squirrels. The application for spring grants is due March 19.

Applying to the city to have a tree planted in front of your home or business is probably the easiest way to go if the site meets the city requirements (the planting site needs to be a certain distance from a light pole, driveway, hydrant, intersection, etc). You need to think about the right size and shape for the site (are there power lines overhead? Wide-spread trees nearby?) The neighbor who chose the street trees that were planted in front of our building several years ago thought about the colors, too, and chose cherry trees that are perfect with the big old brick building we live in. And if you are opting for free street trees, you need to be willing to wait: currently there is about a year backlog of street tree requests. If you want your street tree right away, you may be able to pay for the tree and have the city plant it sooner.

(If there isn’t a planting site on your street, you might want to contribute to Boston’s working tree canopy by donating a tree to a street or park that could use another tree. A donation or memorial plaque can be installed on a park tree when the tree is planted.)

Challenges of Care and Maintenance of Trees (watering, mulch, and later pruning…)

What happens after the trees are delivered?  I talked with Sarah Freeman of the JP community group, the Arborway Coalition, about the trees they planted through a Grow Boston Greener grant in 2009.

After working through the paperwork and attending the required classes on how to plant and care for new trees, the Coalition received the 15 trees they wanted to plant near the intersection of St. Rose Street and the Arborway. The trees they got were in good shape, and they recruited enough volunteers to plant them and mulch them properly. Then came the hard part -- watering the trees which were planted far from anyone’s faucet, for two years. That’s 5 gallons of water for each tree every week of the growing season for two years. When you plant a tree in your yard or have the city plant a new street tree, you can just adjust your hose to a slow trickle and leave it for a while,, but this was a totally different kind of challenge.  Fortunately the Coalition had volunteers from the neighborhood, Jim Stillman’s truck, and help from the Arboretum, and all fifteen trees – red oaks and red maples – survived the critical first few years. Those trees are now working hard to clean the air we breathe, take in CO2, absorb storm water, and be beautiful.

This story has a happy ending, but it also has an important lesson. The process of establishing a tree is a long one, and calls for planning and commitment. Cahill says that Grow Boston Greener plans to be on hand with workshops and expertise to support those who have stepped into stewardship roles for Boston’s new trees that go beyond planting into years of maintenance.

The new Grow Boston Greener guidelines stress the development of a long-term schedule for watering for new trees and make an effort to retrain our expectation of what good mulching practice looks like. 

[Columnist Rant: Have you noticed empty metal grates on the sidewalk where trees planted not so long ago have already died? One cause of the death of those trees may have been volcano mulch. The volcano is mulch mounded up six inches or so around the tree trunk, covering the flare at the base of the tree. This practice keeps the base of the tree moist all the time, causing disease, encouraging insect infestation, harboring critters that chew up the bark at the base line, inflicting wounds that will eventually kill the tree.  This columnist thinks it’s absolutely fine to deconstruct volcano arrangements of mulch anytime you come across them, even if it embarrasses your family or friends that you are out with.  You can just pull the mulch back 4 to 6 inches so that you can see the flare at the base of the tree. We need every one of those the trees!]

Protecting the Mature Healthy Trees We Have

Because the City of Boston considers trees part of the infrastructure of the city, there are protections for the current trees. The removal of a healthy tree requires a public hearing and payment of $300 per inch of diameter of the tree to be removed. Sometimes it’s a struggle with developers to keep trees.

The Boston Urban Forest Council is designed to give Boston trees and their advocates a voice.  (They have a Facebook site.)

At this time of year we can see our mature trees at one of their most beautiful moments, when they stand nude against winter skies. It’s worth a winter walk in the , or in our own garden cemetery, .  In Jamaica Plain we are never far from the imagery of trees. In this month of valentines, consider the tree-informed love poem of e.e.cummings, who rests at Forest Hills:

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)”


[Editor's note: The original post gave the wrong street for one of the sources interviewed.]

Stephen Pepper February 04, 2012 at 10:51 PM
This is the first time I've discovered Janell's column, but it won't be the last. Thanks very much for raising my consciousness about mulch and trees in general. $300 per inch to cut down a healthy tree? That's a fine with teeth!
Hans Tyl;er February 05, 2012 at 02:48 PM
Hans Tyler Janell, I loved your piece -- covering not only why it's important, but what we can do to make it work. And I was reminded of our mother's amusement at Orgen Nash's paarody on Joyce Kilmer's poem. Here are both of them: I think that I shall never see A billboard lovely as a tree. Indeed, unless the billboards fall I'll never see a tree at all. I THINK that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree. A tree whose hungry mouth is prest Against the sweet earth's flowing breast; A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray; A tree that may in summer wear A nest of robins in her hair; Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain. Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.
Janell Fiarman February 05, 2012 at 06:47 PM
Okay, your posting of the Kilmer poem (oh! fifth grade embarassment memorizing a poem with the word BREAST in it!) gives me permission to post two other tree poems I couldn't find a way to fit into the piece: Waiting for a Message by Rochelle Mass Trees help you see slices of sky between branches, point to things you could never reach. Trees help you watch the growing happen, watch blossoms burst then dry, see shade twist to the pace of a sun, birds tear at unwilling seeds. ...A tree is a lens, a viewfinder, a window. I wait below for a message of what is yet to come. Tree At My Window by Robert Frost Tree at my window, window tree, My sash is lowered when night comes on; But let there never be curtain drawn Between you and me. Vague dream-head lifted out of the ground, And thing next most diffuse to cloud, Not all your light tongues talking aloud Could be profound. But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed, And if you have seen me when I slept, You have seen me when I was taken and swept And all but lost. That day she put our heads together, Fate had her imagination about her, Your head so much concerned with outer, Mine with inner, weather.
Lisa Gallagher September 09, 2012 at 06:56 PM
I noticed that they are cutting down a lot of trees in Forest Hills Cemetery. Over near Kahlil Gibran's grave, there is a little forest and they chopped the whole thing down. It is very upsetting to see. I thought that Forest Hills Cemetery is a historical treasure. I am worried that the business end of it is ignoring that status.
Chris Helms September 09, 2012 at 11:04 PM
Hi Lisa, others have noticed too. I called the Cemetery and they say it's because of the wooly adelgid, which has infected many of the trees. I'm hoping to do a post about it soon. If you have more details, please email me at chrish@patch.com.


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