Downtown View:1,200 New Street Trees

By Karen Cord Taylor

The City of Boston started planting 1,200 trees along city streets in mid-April and will continue to do so until June. Every neighborhood gets them. Their hired contractor might grind out the stump of a dead tree. Then he’ll refresh the soil in the tree pit, dig the hole, water it, set the tree into it and cover it with soil. Then he’ll add mulch in a raised circle, called a mulch saucer, so that when he waters again the water will soak into the soil near the roots. He’ll come back every two weeks to water again.

You say, that’s a laugh, I’ve never seen any city-hired truck watering a tree. That will change, according to arborist and Parks Department general foreman Max Ford-Diamond. Ford-Diamond can follow the contractor’s movements through the GPS system installed in the trucks, usually Ford F350s with a big water tank in the truck bed.

Here are the trees the city will plant: honey locusts on busy streets with lots of foot traffic and winter salt. “Honey locusts are about as hardy as any tree can be,” said Ford-Diamond.

Tree pits under power lines qualify for flowering crab apples and cherries because these trees don’t grow as tall as Boston’s other favorites.  Maples, ginkos, oaks, and shadblow will show up. The Parks Department mixes up the genera so that if blight hits one type of tree, the rest will carry on, I was told several years ago.

Ford-Diamond has always been a tree guy. He went to Norfolk County Agricultural High School in Walpole, got an associate’s degree at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture and earned his bachelor’s from UMass in urban forestry. He is an Mass. Certified Arborist as are the other two Parks Department arborists.

He picked out the 1,200 trees himself, flying to New Jersey in the fall to identify the ones he wanted at the Tuckahoe Nursery. Each tree costs the city between $400 and $750.

The types of trees that typically grow tall in a large yard or in the forest are usually shorter on the street because “they are constrained by the site condition,” said Ford-Diamond. The size of the pit is one important constraint.

Once a tree is planted it is up to the citizens of Boston to help ensure the tree’s survival. Ford-Diamond recommends that nearby home and business owners pour a five gallon bucket of water on the tree a couple of times a week. You can also turn a hose on with a drip for about 30 minutes, since the idea is to water deeply, not just on the surface. The tree roots will follow the water and if surface watering is all that is done, roots will be shallow. This will make the tree more susceptible to damage and it might encourage roots to buckle the sidewalk rather than growing deep into the ground.

If it is 100 degrees for a few days, water more frequently, he said.

Arborists used to use green plastic “gator” bags wrapped around new trees to get trees going with deep drips. But that hasn’t worked out so well, said Ford-Diamond.

Nearby residents often couldn’t figure out whether to put the water in or outside the bag. When the city removed the bags they found the moisture inside had sometimes rotted the bark. Or passersby had used them as trash bins, filling them with cans or bottles. So now the trees are left naked, with the hope that nearby residents can more easily care for them.

Weeding the tree pit, keeping dogs out and picking up trash and litter from the pit will also help the tree thrive. Ford-Diamond does not recommend grates around the tree trunk but he is all for fencing around the tree pit. Just make the street side length removable so if the tree has to be replaced, the fence will not have to be destroyed. He also said to hold on the fertilizer. Unless you test the soil you won’t know what it needs.

Part of caring is watching what happens to the tree. Trees can get hit by unruly drivers parking their car or trucks that can’t see what they are backing into. The city can cut back low-lying limbs on older, taller trees to make room for tall vehicles to be near them without injuring them, but the new trees are vulnerable to all kinds of vehicle menaces.

If your tree gets hits, report it by calling 311, use the 311 app or call the Parks Department at 617-635-4505. Sometimes a tree that has been knocked over can be reset into the ground. You should also report your tree if it looks sick or is damaged in any other way.

Ford-Diamond’s department is always looking for places to put new street trees, so if you want one in front of your house or business and you’re willing to care for it, contact the Parks Department and put in a request to find out if it is possible to plant a tree where you want it to go.

Bostonians are proud of the green canopy that shades the sidewalks for six months of the year. You can see how important the trees are for visual delight if you visit San Francisco. That city is handsome from afar and it is certainly interesting to look at. But its wide concrete sidewalks are cold and uninviting. The city would look much better if they were lined with trees.

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