How to Care for Our Street Trees

Watering boy by Jon Hayes Photography.

With the onset of summer weather, GM thought it wise to reprint the “Dos” and “Don’ts” of tree care that he ran last year. So without further ado, all the things you ought to do to keep our street trees alive:

Do #1 – Water, Water, Water

There is one thing that trees, particularly young ones, need above all else: water. Yes, we’ve had a pretty rainy spring, but our summers can be brutal on trees. We can go weeks without a significant rainfall. And even when we get those typical summer flash storms, most of the water runs straight to the storm drains and fails to reach the trees.

That’s why it’s incumbent on us to keep our trees fully watered. The basic goal you should have is to water young trees at least once a week, so long as you get a good 20-25 gallons of water. You should start when the trees start leafing in the spring and continue all the way until they lose their leaves in the fall.

You should water the trees about 20-25 gallons each time. If you have a gator (the green bags, which aren’t preferred anymore since they can hurt the bark if they’re not taken off when not in use) or the ooze tube (the brown bags, which are preferred now since you can leave them on without harming the tree) you should just fill it up and let it run.

If you don’t have a gator or an ooze tube, you can just leave a hose trickling into the tree box for 30 minutes to an hour. This may pose a problem to those without a front mounted water spigot. Thus neighbors ought to work together to identify what houses do have front facing hoses and spread the water around. Remember, everyone benefits from healthy trees.

Once a tree is mature, you can stop watering it. By then the roots are so spread out under the sidewalk that it doesn’t need your help anymore (although during any particularly dry periods, it can’t hurt to water it). At what point does a tree become “mature”? That depends on the tree. It’s better safe than sorry so you might as well do it for the first eight years or so.

Do #2 – Mulch

You should add about two to four inches of mulch once a year to the top soil of the tree box. Make sure, however, that the mulch doesn’t touch the tree itself.

Do #3 – Don’t Forget to Water!

OK, this is just to remind you: if you don’t want a dead tree in front of your house, don’t neglect your watering duties.

And now the don’ts:

#1 – Don’t Plant Anything in Tree Boxes Except Trees

Only one living thing should be planted in a tree box, and that’s a tree. This is a controversial point, since people love to plant everything from ivy to annuals to full blown bushes in their tree boxes. But these other plants take water and nutrients away from the tree, particularly young trees who are the most vulnerable.

And the problem can’t necessarily be obviated by simply watering more. In fact, that’s another problem with planting plants like annuals in a tree box. Annuals require a lot of water to survive, a lot more than a tree needs. When you water the annuals enough to keep them alive, you’re probably over-watering the tree.

Once you have a fully mature tree, it is probably less harmful to plant a few plants in the tree box. But really, a tree box is the most healthy when all that you see is thick healthy roots.

(ed: Since writing this last year, GM has learned how controversial this point is. Many believe a mature tree can easily hand some additional plantings in the treebox. GM’s not going to decide that one, but it is probably safe to say that you should avoid planting additional plants in a treebox with a young tree.)

#2 – Don’t Use an Illegal Fence

District law has very specific requirements for tree box fences. They must be 18″ tall to prevent tripping. They must allow water to pass under them in order to increase the amount of rainwater being absorbed by the ground not the storm drain. Finally, they must be three sided and set back at least a foot from the edge of the curb.

While boxes like the one at the top of this post are pretty, they’re not permissible. The stones are too low and rainwater will just run around the box. Here are a couple other bad fences or borders on the exact same block:

You may be asking, well those look like just about every tree box in Georgetown. Well, you’re right. A lot of bad box fences have been installed over the years, but as trees get replaced they violating fences and walls will be removed and replaced with compliant fences.

#3 – Don’t Do Anything to a Street Tree Without a Permit

Even though the street tree is right outside your door, it doesn’t belong to you. You cannot just prune it or cut it down wily-nilly. Nor can you plant a new tree in an empty box without permission. You need to get a permit from the District Urban Forestry Administration. Any violation can carry a $1,500 fine.

There has been a problem with landscape companies flouting the permit rules (also those awful double-decker tour buses are known to take tree pruning into their own hands). If you see any landscape company doing anything to street trees you have a right to ask to see a permit. If they don’t have one, call DDOT at (202) 673-6813 and ask for the UFA inspector.  Make sure also to take photos of the workers and try to get the name of the company (from the truck) in the shot. They can be fined quite a lot.

The fines get particularly high if someone cuts down what is known as a special tree. These are trees more than 55″ in circumference (which according to GM’s rudimentary geometry means a tree with a diameter of over 17″ or so). When a special tree is cut down without a permit, the fine is $100 per inch of circumference (i.e., the fines start at $5,500 and go up from there).

The important thing to remember about the special trees regulations is that they apply to all trees, not just those on public property. So if you want to cut down a mature tree in your backyard, make sure you either get a permit or you are sure it’s not 55″ in circumference. If the tree is certified to be hazardous or is one of the species identified as invasive (tree of heaven, mulberry, or Norway maple) the permit is free. Otherwise it’s $35 per inch of circumference.

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