Liz Bittner: Young Trees Need Care If They Are To Thrive


Richmond Trees formed in 2011 in order to educate residents about the City of Richmond’s Adopt-A-Tree program.  Under this program, residents can fill out a form stating that they would like to have a tree planted in the landscaping strip between the street and the sidewalk in front of their home.  A city employee or volunteers then plant the tree and the resident promises to water the tree until it is established, generally for about 3 years after planting.  What a great program!  So in the summer and fall of 2011, Richmond Trees members began going door to door to encourage residents to sign up to adopt a tree. 

Tree_Care_02.jpgThe City was grateful for our interest and involvement, but former Parks Superintendent, Chris Chamberlain, was quick to tell us that planting the trees was the easy part.  Any number of things can go wrong in the first few years after planting, and trees can be easily lost.  With that in mind, we decided to follow the model of the Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF) in San Francisco, and many other tree planting organizations, and we established a tree care program.  We check on trees once a year for thefirst three years that they are in the ground:  3 to 6 months after planting; 18 to 24 months after planting; and 24 to 36 months after planting.  Tree care includes checking on watering, weeding, mulching, and possibly pruning.

Trees are living things.  And while planting a tree is fun and exciting and full of hope, it is just the first step in the life of a tree that we hope will live for 40 years or more.  The statistic that I have heard, however, is that the average life of a street tree is seven years!  Richmond Trees hopes to change that statistic throughout our city by providing tree care for the first three years after we plant a tree. Giving the tree extra attention during the early phase of a tree’s life can help improve the long-term health and prolong the life of a tree.

First and foremost, Richmond Trees’ tree care visits are meant to provide tree adopters with feedback on how they are caring for their tree. Perhaps they are not watering quite enough, or they have allowed weeds and grass to grow too closely to the tree.  Sometimes there are other issues that a resident may not be able to correct – a broken stake or a girdling root.  And in many cases the resident is doing a terrific job and the Richmond Trees volunteers simply leave a note thanking them for adopting a street tree.  In the next few paragraphs, I’ll detail some of the main things that we do during tree care visits and some tips for how to care for your tree. 

Tree_Care_03.jpgWe make the first visit toward the end of spring, and we remind residents to water their tree once each week when it is not raining.  At this point, the tree will not have grown many roots into the surrounding soil, so it is very important that the few roots that the tree does have remain hydrated.  Generally that is about 10 gallons per week.  During the second and third years in the ground, the tree will have developed a more extensive root system, and we want to start watering to encourage deeper roots.  This means watering less often but more deeply, and the best method is to leave the water on for a while on slow drip or sprinkler in order to allow the water to percolate through the soil.  The actual amount of water will depend on the soil type.   Clay soils may not need watering as frequently.  I recommend checking the soil moisture before watering – it may look dry on the surface but be moist or wet two inches below the surface.  Allowing the top few inches of soil to dry between waterings may discourage large surface roots.  Deeper roots help to prevent sidewalk damage.  One of the main problems we encounter with watering is that many people think that if they are watering their lawn around the tree, the tree is getting enough water.  However, lawns do well with frequent, shallow water, while trees require much deeper watering and need it less often.  If conditions are right, and we receive a good amount of rain in the winter, we hope the tree is well established after the third year and won’t require watering, or only infrequent watering.    

We have not received much rain these past two winters, and will be facing mandatory cutbacks on the municipal level.  However, it is important to continue to water young trees.  In relation to total household water use, trees require very little water – about 10 gallons per week or 40 gallons per month if you are watering just once a month.  That is about equivalent to one shower a week.  Not much.  

During tree care, we weed almost every time we visit a tree.  We clear a four-foot diameter around the tree and mulch this area.  Ideally, we would clear an area equal in diameter to the tree canopy or dripline.  This is very important for a couple of reasons:  1)  weeds, and even more so grass or lawn, are serious competition for water; 2) weed eaters are enemy #1 for a tree!  If a weed eater (also known as weedwacker or string trimmer) cuts into the bark of the tree it creates an opening for disease.  If a weed eater cuts into the bark of the tree all the way around the tree, the tree will most likely die because it can no longer transport water from the roots to the leaves, or food from the leaves to the roots.  If weeds and grass are allowed to grow right up to the trunk of the tree, the chances are greatly increased that the tree will be damaged by a weed eater.

Mulching is very beneficial for a tree!  It protects the soil surrounding the tree from  becoming compacted and from drying out.  It helps discourage weeds and makes it easier to remove weeds.  Mulch feeds the tree as it breaks down, and can even reduce the spread of soil borne pathogens or disease.  But it is very important that the mulch is not piled against the trunk of the tree, which must remain exposed to air and light.  The mulch that we use is usually made up of wood chips and leaves.  Mulch is different from a soil amendment in that it is not incorporated or dug into the soil, but remains on top of the soil.  It is meant to mimic the natural process of litterfall in forests.  


Topped_Tree.jpgPruning a tree when it is small saves time and money as the tree matures.  There are many corrections that we can make when a tree is small that will train the tree to grow with a healthy and safe structure.  Because street trees are growing in a relatively small space, they must be pruned to allow people room to walk on the sidewalk, and to allow trucks and delivery vehicles to drive by without hitting and damaging branches along the street.  We also train the trees to grow with a single main trunk, again because of limited space we want more upright growing trees.  We have lost a few 30- and 40-year old trees in my neighborhood because they were not trained to have a single main trunk.  Rather, there were many large limbs emanating from a single point on the tree, usually about 6 to 8 feet up.  This is not recommended because as the tree grows, the limbs increase in girth, and eventually they push against each other.  Eventually, one or more of the large limbs rip off of the tree, creating a huge wound in the tree, an opening for disease that will greatly shorten the life of the tree.  And occasionally (luckily only occasionally!) damaging vehicles or other property.  Structural pruning is so important, and a few Richmond Trees volunteers have been trained by arborists and are qualified and allowed by the City of Richmond to undertake this important task.  Hopefully if we get interest from more volunteers, we will be able to organize another training in the near future.

Because there is a lot of poor pruning going on, it is important that only trained people prune trees.  One of the worst pruning practices, called topping, heading or hat-racking, is probably the most harmful tree pruning practice known, yet it is so common!  Someone decides that a tree is too large, and just cuts through large branches indiscriminately.  Often people think that a large tree is a hazard, when in fact a topped tree can cause a perfectly sound tree to become hazardous.  Why is topping bad?  Usually the cuts leave a large open wound on the tree, which make it more susceptible to pests and fungus, and the cuts are made in a location where the tree is not able to close off the wound.  Topping causes the tree to grow multiple small branches near the cut.  The shoots usually grow very quickly and do not form a strong attachment to the branch they are growing from, so they are likely to break on windy days, of which there are many in Richmond.  So with topping, the tree can actually become a hazard.  With topping, not only does the tree become more susceptible to disease and to breaking, but it also destroys the natural form of a tree making it ugly and mutilated.  To help prevent topping, we try to get the right tree in the right place.  


Making friends:

Tree_Care_01.jpgAside from caring for the trees in our urban forest, tree care events nurture community!  We make new friends, chat with residents, exchange gardening knowledge, or share fruit from backyard trees.  And it’s a good way to get your gardening fix!

Richmond Trees is currently looking for more people to join us in monthly tree care!  Our greatest need is for knowledgeable volunteers who can help lead small groups in tree care activities.  Based on the level of interest, we will  organize a tree care training program this fall for people who can commit to volunteering for tree care at least six times a year and are willing to lead small groups (two to three people per group).  Everyone is welcome, with or without experience. With regular attendance, our volunteers learn a lot and become important stewards of the urban forest we are growing.

Want to come see what Tree Care is all about? We meet at 9 a.m. at Burg Park (30th Street and Clinton Avenue) on the third Sunday of each month. You are welcome to just show up, but you can also let us know you are coming by emailing [email protected]! Bring gloves and a water bottle. For more information contact Richmond Trees at [email protected] or visit


By: Liz Bittner, Richmond Trees volunteer and Gardener at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden

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