Washington, DC is nicknamed “City of Trees,” but its appropriateness is at risk along with many of DC’s trees. We must improve the way we care for our city’s trees to make this nickname relevant again, and soon.

A few years ago, the city planted trees in the median of North Capitol Street, from Michigan Avenue to Hawaii Avenue, while the street was undergoing a complete reconstruction. The trees all died within the year, due to a lack of water. Casey Trees recommends that a newly-planted street tree receive twenty-five gallons of water per week for the first three years while establishing a healthy root system. (I am a Casey Trees Citizen Forester.)


Over the last year, the city reconstructed Brentwood Road NE from Rhode Island Avenue south to T Street. That reconstruction included the planting of approximately 64 new trees in the treeboxes lining the street. The photographs above show the condition of the trees on this stretch of road now—namely, they’ve nearly all died.

On a recent weekend, I counted only four trees, or 6% of the total from this project, that remain alive. Weeds choke the treeboxes that line the street (save two in front of the Lowest Price Gas Station, where the trees are still dead), all of them neglected. That’s unacceptable.

A new section of the Metropolitan Branch Trail recently opened between the New York Avenue Metro Station and Franklin Street NE. Trees were planted along the trail at many points, including the pocket park pictured at 4th and S Streets NE. Many of the trees are already dead due to the extremely dry spell we had in June and early July.

All of that is unfortunate, and easily could have been prevented, had the property owners and neighbors along the Met Branch Trail and Brentwood Road taken the time to water the nearby trees, or if the city had planned to water the trees in the North Capitol Street median, as the road there is practically a freeway where watering would be difficult. But there is hope ahead!

The city is actively working on a streetscape plan for the entire length of Sherman Avenue NW, between New Hampshire and Florida Avenues. One of the elements of this reconstruction will be a planted median. After seeing what happened on roads like North Capitol Street, it’s reasonable to see why residents might be skeptical that trees could survive without a dedicated source of water to keep them alive.

Thankfully, Sherman Avenue resident Craig Sallinger was able to get a guarantee from a DDOT employee that an irrigation system will be included in the construction of the road, so it will be easy to get water to those trees while they’re trying to establish roots. Hopefully this will be a consideration DDOT makes in all of their future streetscape programs.

In the August 4th edition of the Dupont Current, there is a story about the DC “Tree Fund.” The fund is partially filled by fees levied as part of the Urban Forest Preservation Act of 2002, and is legally required to be kept separate from the city’s general fund. (I wish I could link directly to the story, but the Current has a strong dislike of Internet publishing.)

The Current says that the 2011 budget, proposed by the Mayor and approved by the Council, removes money from the fund and places it in the city’s general fund. In the article, Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) states she wasn’t aware that the money was being diverted from the Tree Fund into the general fund when she voted for the budget.

The government agency tasked with planting and maintaining street trees in DC is the Urban Forestry Administration (UFA), which is part of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). I recently had the opportunity to speak with John P. Thomas, the Urban Forestry Administration’s Chief Forester, about some details of the city’s street tree planting and maintenance program.

DDOT’s yearly street tree budget is $7.5 million. As John Kelly noted on Sunday, the city is not responsible for watering trees once they are planted (contractors plant most of the street trees in the city). Mr. Thomas said that watering will be a line item in the planting contract this coming year. It will most likely mean that the city will not be able to plant as many trees as they have in years past, but I see that as a net positive for the DC.

Spending money on in-ground watering systems and paying more individuals (be they UFA contractors or students employed during the summer) will inevitably take money away from actual tree planting. I think that’s a good thing.

I’m not saying I want fewer trees. I want more! But I want them to be mature and healthy, not first-year seedlings, struggling to stay alive.

DDOT’s current planting process doesn’t work, through no fault of their own. Mr. Thomas noted that 95% of what they plant comes from resident requests for trees in front of their house. A program called “Canopy Keepers” exists to encourage residents to water the young trees on their street. Some of my friends here in Trinidad are participating in this program. Walking around the city, though, you can easily see that many residents are not holding up their end of the bargain. The UFA staff does an admirable job with limited resources, but I believe it would be better to help young trees mature instead of wasting those resources replacing trees year after year.

You can only count on the kindness of strangers to a certain point. Eventually, money talks, and it can also water trees.

Cross-posted at The District Curmudgeon.