Seeking Shade: Tips for Taking Care of Our Trees

576
Latisha Austin and her 6-year-old dog Winston braved one of the hottest days in June to be outside in the shade. “I enjoy being out in nature,” says Latisha, “and the shade tree lets us enjoy our time out, even on a hot day.” Photo: Rindy O’Brien

Cherry trees may be DC’s best-known trees, but this time of year it is the mighty oaks, elms, and other species that give us the relief from the scorching sun. We are so lucky that DC is one of the best planned cities in the US for nourishing and protecting its trees.  Starting with L’Enfant designing the green spaces around Capitol Hill, to the DC government passing laws that recognize the importance of trees for the health and well-being of all, our trees are grand treasures. 

More than 6,000 new trees are planted by Casey Trees each year with the help of volunteers. In March, volunteers helped plant trees at Banneker Recreation Center. Planting new trees is the key to keeping the DC tree canopy thriving and reaching the goal of 40% in 2030. Photo: Casey Trees.

According to the non-profit Casey Trees, DC has 2.14 million trees. The Urban Forestry Division (UFD) located in the DC Department of Transportation is responsible for 170,000 public trees, and for “delivering a healthy, safe and growing tree canopy.” Unlike other cities where tree maintenance is spread across many different departments, it is centralized in one DC department.

Tree boxes are the responsibility of city homeowners. This tree box along Lincoln Park on East Capitol Street, SE, is a great example of a well-done box. Not too many plants alongside the tree and the fencing is the right height and open on the curb side. Photo: Rindy O’Brien

To reach the city’s goal of 40% tree canopy by 2030, there is much to be done and each one of us can help. Think of this as your patriotic duty. Especially during this summer’s heat waves, trees need to be watered and new trees need to be planted in our residential yards.  Caring for the trees in the city-owned tree boxes is also our responsibility.

Tree Information and Services

Getting to know about the trees around you is a good place to begin. UFD has gathered a great deal of exciting tree data and information and it’s all available on interactive web pages at the UFD website, https://trees.dc.gov/. Want to know about a specific tree box you pass on your daily commute? Want to know about that dead tree in the box down your street?  Answers are right there at your fingertips on the website. 

For example, clicking on the tree outside my window on 11th Street tells me the tree is an American Elm and, as of 2023, it was 26 feet tall, and listed in fair condition. It also provides the geographical information and even the tree’s specific ID number. 

The Urban Forestry Division (UFD) has many different interactive maps to show where trees are located and the status of tree service requests for removing dead trees or planting new ones. Other maps show the percentage of specific trees planted in the city. All are accessible through the city website https://trees.dc.gov

If you are thinking of planting a new tree on your own property, or a new tree is needed in a tree box, looking at existing trees nearby can help you narrow the list of trees to consider. Being able to see the size and shape of a mature tree can also help you plant according to your space. Another tool is a list of preferred trees that has been developed through a climate study by the Urban Forestry folks. Earl Eutsler, Associate Director/State Forester of the Urban Forestry Division, is very proud of the climate report that his staff has spent a great deal of time planning, researching, and studying.

Providing free trees is also part of the Urban Forestry unit’s work through a partnership with Casey Trees. Any resident can request a tree by calling 311 and registering with the Urban Forest program. The trees are paid for by the Tree Fund which is funded by tree fines and other sources. Vince Drader, Director of Communications and Development for Casey Trees, says that Casey Trees plants over 6,000 plus new trees a year with the help of volunteers and other partners. 

“Increased plantings in places like schools and other public spaces is great,” says Eutsler, “but we really need individual homeowners to step up and plant more. We really hope people will take their responsibility to help reach our overall goal and reach out to us for a free tree.”

Climate Change

Trees will play a significant role in helping residents adapt to increased temperatures and precipitation in the future. The city report says, “Trees cool our neighborhoods through evapotranspiration and shading, while also reducing flooding by slowing down and absorbing rainwater during storms (stormwater).” Studies show that by 2080, DC will experience up to three times the number of heat emergency days and heat waves. Average temperatures will rise ten degrees in the summer, and severe rain events will increase as well. The city has already begun to overlay heat studies with location of trees and has started to prioritize tree planting in areas that are currently without trees.

The climate report also gives a list of species of trees that have a better chance of survival in the projected climate data. For instance, if you are thinking about planting a scarlet oak (the official tree of DC) the report can tell you that it has a better than modeled chance of adapting. But if you are thinking about a Tuliptree, all kinds of red flags are raised on suitability and adaptability.

Diversity in planting trees is also important and part of the climate study includes research on the adaptability of different street trees under more stressful conditions. A Tree Archive Dashboard has been developed to help arborists know what species of trees are planted along a street and aid them in choosing different trees to make the landscape more diverse. That helps sustain the tree canopy in the long term.

In our Ward 6, we currently have 15.2 percent maple trees, as opposed to the city average of13.6 percent. Future tree box plantings by UFD will avoid the maple to even out our neighborhood’s tree population.

All these data bases are available to the public to use and study at https://climatereadyforests.dc.gov/. The knowledge being shared by experts in climate, health, and natural studies, is not only helping our city arborists make better decisions, but it can help you make better landscaping choices too.

Helping Your Own Tree Box

There always seems to be confusion about the responsibilities of homeowners for the tree boxes in front of their property. City regulations say that the beautification of a tree space is at the discretion of the owner or occupant of the property that abuts the tree space, and “shall be under the immediate care and keeping of the owner or occupant of the property.” 

Homeowners can plant flowers and plants in the tree box if they have shallow roots and will not grow in height of 18 inches. It is important to put the health of the trees first and not over plant.  Growing vegetables in a tree space is prohibited. The city does have the authority to remove plants with sufficient notice. 

“Tree guards or fences around the tree box are at the discretion of the homeowners,” Eutsler says. First, the fences can only be three sided, leaving the curbside free.  “You want to make sure that those getting out of a car are not impeded by a fence.”  The city used to place tree guards, but no longer does it, primarily because it wants the tree boxes to have access to rain runoff. “The fences also require a lot of maintenance and cost,” says Eutsler “and that is on the homeowner.” Fences cannot be be more than 18 inches high and need to be built to allow rainwater runoff to get to the tree to comply with 2017 regulations.  Eutsler says he knows of no law or regulation that deals with the signs that some homeowners put in the boxes discouraging dogs from using the box. 

An interactive map is also available at the Urban Forest website of work service by the city arborists. If you call 311 and ask for help, it will be logged in and your tree will be marked for service. Clicking on your tree, you can find out when service is scheduled for cutting the tree or planting a new one. It also lists what kind of tree is being will be planted, and you can have input with UFD if you desire something else. All the information is public, so if you are wondering when a dead tree is going to be cut on your street, you can access that information.

As our 2024 summer sizzles, we have a chance to help our city stay cooler. Check the watering guide either at Casey Trees, or the Urban Forest Division to see where new trees need watering. Help and then let the city know. Casey Trees emails weekly watering alerts if you sign up at caseytrees.org/water or use https://treewatering.ddot.dc.gov/treewatering/.

This summer enjoy the shade, spend some time educating yourself about the trees you love, and find out what you can do to be ready for the hot years ahead.

Rindy O’Brien salutes DC’s Urban Foresters and Casey Trees for all they do. SShe can be reachedat rindyobrien@gmail.com.