Tree Week: The Don’ts

Yesterday GM went over all the things you ought to be doing to help out our street trees. Today he’ll take up the slightly less pleasant task of going over all the things people do that they really ought not to.

#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.

#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.

Enough with the don’ts; do buy a ticket to Trees for Georgetown’s annual fundraiser on May 26th by calling the CAG office at 202-337-7313.


Filed under Tree Week

11 responses to “Tree Week: The Don’ts

  1. anon

    Can someone please complain about the tree boxes on the north side of P street between 27th and 28th. They have built a super fortress around the trees that are not only ugly, but they over lap the curb and cause serious damage to cars trying to parallel park. My car is covered in huge grooves on the back corner bumper because of them. I’m not the only one either. I’ve called 311, I’ve called the city, and nothing gets done. Who else can i report these ugly, destructive, and apparently illegal boxes too?

  2. Old Georgetowner

    GM (or anyone else) —

    There are a large number of apparently compliant fences on the 3300 block of N St. (They’re on other blocks, too.)

    Where can one get such things?

  3. Kate Whitmore

    I had no idea that planting anything in tree boxes hurt the trees. The Georgetown Garden Club gives out awards each year for the nicest tree boxes, and I assure you no one gets awards for trees only filled with mulch!

    Tree boxes provide so much beauty and color in the neighborhoods. Are there really no perennials that would not harm a mature tree?

  4. Charlie Eason

    Kate, et al.

    I do believe we need to have greater coordination between “Trees for Georgetown” and the “Georgetown Garden Club.” There seems to be a mixed-message and folks like me are left scratching our heads.

    I am 100% supportive of the efforts of Betsy Emes and Trees for Georgetown in planting new trees in Georgetown. And I think the community is 100% behind that effort. What we, as a community, need to learn is how to best support that effort, whether it is watering (and how often) and when it is appropriate to add plantings to tree boxes.

    My hat is off to GM for highlighting these issues.

  5. GM

    Old Georgetowner: You may be able to get the compliant fences from the Urban Forestry Administration.

    Kate: There is some debate over those Garden Club awards. Apparently last year they were given out to “responsible” plantings. But this year they seem to have gone back to their old ways. A small border of perennials planted next to a fully mature tree may not be that big of a problem. I think the concern is higher for younger trees most of whose roots are so near the surface.

    Charlie: Thanks!

  6. Michael Kessler

    Thanks for this series. Two concerns/quibbles. First, your watering instructions are going to be detrimental for some species in some soil conditions. Watering requirements will absolutely have to take into account drainage, soil composure (sandy, loamy, clay?), and the type of tree.

    Second, the horticultural science just doesn’t support a blanket ban on underplanting trees. Neither does common industry practice. Lots of studies (as well as lots of wise old gardeners’ experience) don’t support the claim that placing annuals or perennials (like liriope, which is most common around here) will harm even a new tree.

  7. Well the baby tree the city (somebody) put in my treebox suffered worse injuries than the hardy annuals and perennials I put in. Bad kids and drunks tearing off limbs. Also when I noticed weeds growing in the treebox, I replaced them with other plants because it was obvious that nature was not going to leave the box alone, why should I?
    The tree, after some trimming and fertilizer, and a little mulch is doing much better.

  8. Charlie Eason

    As all of the comments here indicate, folks are more than willing to do “what is right.”

    What is missing is clear direction from DDOT, who “owns” the public space in which the tree boxes are located, and also is home to the Urban Forestry Administration, Trees for Georgetown and the Georgetown Garden Club. All of these organizations have a role.

    I think we are ready for a “tree-box summit!” Who wants to convene such a conclave?

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  10. EastGeorgetowner

    GM — Do you have contact info for Betsy Emes that you would be willing to pass? on off-line to my email account? There is DC tree work scheduled for a beautiful tree in front of my house on Wednesday and I am concerned they are planning to cut it all the way down to stump as they have been doing throughout the neighborhood. It is healthy and in good condition. I am going to call the DC Tree office this am to try and get some info but if I need some help I would like to be in touch with Ms. Emes. Thanks!

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