Planting When No One’s Looking

Young Students Watch a DDOT Planting Crew at Work

Young Students Watch a DDOT Planting Crew at Work

There is no shortage of pictures of children planting trees with big smiles on their faces, or perhaps college students or a neighborhood group volunteering on a Saturday. Such photos and the events from which they derive are the stock-in-trade of promotion in urban forestry. Volunteer planting efforts excite the public, engage all populations in beautifying our city while helping it function more like a natural ecosystem, and plant trees where they might otherwise not be. Yet in Washington, DC there is another, albeit less photogenic, side to urban tree planting that doesn’t make it in too many glossy brochures. It is the highly efficient professional street tree planting operation that has far fewer cherub smiles and far more calloused hands, but accounts for a large majority of the thousands of trees planted throughout Washington, DC every year.

The District Department of Transportation’s Urban Forestry Administration (UFA) is currently planting about 7,000 trees citywide this year during the colder months of dormancy. Far from saplings, these trees stand about 8 feet tall with approximately two inch wide trunks. This year’s effort includes about 2,800 more trees than UFA planted last year. Despite a hurricane and other hindrances, 3,200 of those trees were already in the ground less than two months after beginning (See a map of the first 3,200 locations and species).

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Staking a newly planted tree

Planning: UFA’s planting effort starts long before any hole is dug. Certified arborists use their intimate knowledge of the streetscape in their portion of the city, along with asset management and mapping technologies, to plan a diverse mosaic of species in good locations for each one. Their priorities are to replace dying and warranty trees that were recently removed, fulfill planting requests from residents, and, eventually, fill every plantable tree box or strip in the District’s street right-of-way.

Planting the right tree in the right place is critical. Smaller trees are planted under power lines or in narrow tree boxes while larger trees are put in areas with more room for both their canopy and root system to expand. The goal is to maximize tree canopy and species viability for each location.

Planting: Contracted crews, making their livings improving the urban environment, are motivated to complete their daily planting lists as quickly and effectively as possible. These 3 to 4 person crews haul trailers loaded with about 20 trees per day and usually spend only 10-15 minutes at each planting location. They dig sometimes unforgiving urban soil, adding amendments to the soil as well as a non-toxic hydrogel that stores water and releases it during dry periods. They plant, water, mulch, and stake each sizable tree before most residents know they were even there.

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Monitoring: A certified District of Columbia arborist follows each planting crew every day. The arborist inspects every tree, either approving or rejecting it before it ever leaves the trailer. On site, the arborist does neighborhood outreach to encourage tree adoption and makes sure each tree that is planted meets industry specifications and contractual obligations. This level of oversight is necessary because there is little room for error or hidden shortcuts amid the intense infrastructure of an urban street when it comes to new trees getting established and surviving against the odds.

Maintenance: Too often maintenance of new trees falls by the wayside, but DC’s street trees are maintained under warranty. The contractor regularly provides a specified amount of water to each tree and replaces, free of charge to the District, any tree that does not survive its first year (exceptions, such as vandalism or a vehicle running into a tree, are obviously not the responsibility of the contractor).

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Planting Requests: UFA prioritizes citizen planting requests made through the District’s 311 service request system ( or call 311). Individuals can suggest a preferred species and the arborists try to fulfill those wishes whenever possible. Requests must be received by June 15th to make it onto the following autumn planting list.

Just as we get requests for trees, sometimes we get requests from folks who don’t want trees planted near their home or business. Our response is that street trees are for the greater good; they are considered a public asset providing environmental, social, and economic benefits. They are planted and maintained in as many viable street locations as possible to help reach the Mayor’s citywide goal of 40% tree canopy coverage.

Tree Adoption: To help residents and businesses fulfill their obligation to provide basic upkeep to the curb near their properties, DDOT will provide a free covered watering device for each tree adopted through the Canopy Keeper program. This once-a-week effort to water and clean tree boxes is a successful public-private partnership that provides critical support to the trees more consistently than just contractor watering; the trees have a chance to not just survive but thrive in their early years.

As UFA’s professional planting operation has been refined over the years, it has proven to be a successful, efficient means of expanding urban canopy, beautifying the streetscape, improving air and water quality, and minimizing tree mortality within the most intense and unforgiving urban habitats for trees.

Ian Leahy
Urban and Community Forestry

About DDOT Blogger

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) develops and maintains for the District of Columbia a cohesive sustainable transportation system that delivers safe, affordable, and convenient ways to move people and goods - while protecting and enhancing the natural, environmental and cultural resources of the District.
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