I used to fantasize that trees could throw rotten apples at their offenders the way they did in "The Wizard of Oz." But then I began living in cities.
If trees could lash out at egregious behaviors against them, cities would be war zones of flying acorns, apples, sticks, stinko berries and whatever else manages to grow. Even in our parks, where roots and canopy should be able to stretch out, many old trees have been topped. Many stand in entanglements of girdling roots. So much old pruning looks like torture wounds.
Trees suffer silently, and all the people who esteem them put up with being called "tree huggers." It's a tough-guy ridicule that only shows how ignorant tough guys can be.
One rule we learned in Tree Tenders classes this month was that trees do not like being embraced. The real tree huggers damage trees by stringing lights tightly around their trunks and leaving so-called protective wraps around them long after planting.
I and 45 other people attended classes three successive Tuesdays at the Allegheny Center Alliance Church recently. We paid $40 and got three marvelous meals before learning more about trees than even some landscapers seem to know. This week, we each earned our certification and a T-shirt to wear to planting and pruning days in the neighborhood.
Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest (FPUF) holds classes throughout the city every year and has certified almost 350 people so far. We are the tree ambassadors among our neighbors. We're the ones who will suggest to our dog-walking friends that dog urine is acidic and causes bark to fall away from the base of the tree. We have the chance to tell our well-meaning friends that a bike should never be chained to a tree, to admonish children not to gang up on a tree branch by tugging it repeatedly. A tree's bark is its skin.
Thanks to this non-profit and its partner TreeVitalize -- a project of the state, the county, the city, FPUF and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy -- our little army of Tree Tenders can support the city's understaffed forestry department, which can barely keep up with tree maintenance.
Along with my North Side neighbors Marilyn Detwiler, Catherine Ryan, Kim Walkenhorst, John Engle and Larry Ehrlich, our class included Tiffany Merriman-Preston from Lawrenceville, which has a vibrant Tree Tender community and Sonia Grehian of Swissvale, who said she took the classes on the North Side because of the time of year, "before spring comes."
We Tree Tenders are the neighborhood branches of a recent movement of tree love. We will plant and nurture 20,000 new trees by 2012. In addition, the city will plant 100 American elms that are resistant to Dutch elm disease.
Last year, the first year of the collaborative, the group exceeded its goal of planting 1,000 trees by planting 1,250. This year's goal is to plant another 2,000 trees and train 250 new Tree Tenders. The classes, with a limit of 50, have been mostly full.
In our classes, we learned about the interior lives of trees, how they grow and how to prune them from Steve Miller, a professional arborist.
Phil Gruszka, director of parks management and maintenance for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, taught us about the proper ways to plant trees.
Caitlin Lenahan, FPUF's coordinator of education and outreach, and Matt Erb, FPUF's arborist, told us about the diversity of our tree population and more about pruning, the causes of disease and the best times to prune certain trees. (The majority of street and park trees are maples and pears.)
Marijke Hecht explained the process of getting trees planted in our neighborhoods. (We apply for them at TreeVitalize, which has state funding.) Marijke plans planting dates, Lisa Ceoffe, the city's urban forester, works with Matt Erb on the proper selection -- the right tree for the right place -- and the Department of Public Works does "the heavy lifting" by digging the bigger tree pits, "not the little coffins they've been shoved into in the past," Marijke said.
"We want to think that 20,000 new trees will be thriving in 50 years," she said.
Phil taught us the "stick test." You use a stick to determine whether a tree needs water. "Pick up a stick, the size of a pencil," he said. "If you can push it into the soil and the stick comes out wet, the tree is overwatered. If there's a little resistance with small grains of soil attached, it's perfect." If you can't get the stick in the ground, he said, it is time to water the tree.
The previous practice of shoving trees into 24-square-foot coffins was such a waste of public money, since the trees in those conditions usually live just seven years, Phil said. "That's the classic definition of insanity -- doing the same thing over and over expecting different results."
Is it ever safe to rip leaves off a tree?" one classmate asked, and Caitlin said, "I'd say no."
The road salt that people lavish on their sidewalks interferes with the tree's nutrient collection. Even city crews are guilty, and that has to change if indeed the city is interested in the life of our trees. In Allegheny Commons Park this winter, salt on the walkways has been dumped in piles. It's bad for trees and for dog's paws. Phil said studies have been done that show beet juice is an effective ingredient in an organic alternative to road salt.
A value has been put on trees' benefits to property value and crime-reduction. Let's look at some real numbers, as determined by the U.S. Forestry Service. Our city's tree population provides $81 of benefit per tree per year for a gross total value of $2.4 million. They spare our storm sewers 41.8 million gallons annually, a value of $334,601 to the city.
And yet so many are planted and then left to adapt without being watered and pruned. So many are abused -- swiped by trucks, yanked on by thoughtless children, carved into with pen knives and suffocated in mulch.
Pittsburgh's Street Tree Commission conducted an inventory of its trees several years ago and was shocked to learn that the population was just under 31,000. They were expecting a count of 60,000. We would have to plant 90,000 trees to get up to the national average of city-tree populations, but the commission advised against trying to catch up to boast higher numbers because all those new trees would not have enough people to care for them.
That dilemma was one impetus for starting the Tree Tenders program.
"A little pruning in the beginning of a tree's life can set a tree up for a great life," Caitlin said.
We Tree Tenders now know what so many landscapers and developers need to know about mulching. Mulching is a vital part of tree care, but so much of it is not spread far enough out or thin enough.
Steve Miller told us is that "volcano mulching" around the base of the tree sets the tree up for disease and decay. That base is the tree's transition zone, and when the collar is buried in mulch, the tree reacts by putting roots out. To the tree, the collar is now underground, where roots form.
The city has been cutting concrete away from tree pits in sidewalks to give the trees more room to breathe and grow. The new pit standard is 30 square feet. It's hardly ideal but we are talking sidewalks. In my small part of the North Side, more than a dozen of our sidewalk trees now have bigger pits.
The day after I got my laminated Tree Tender card, I studied every tree on my walk with my dog through Allegheny Commons Park. I could spot the results of good pruning, bad pruning and no pruning at all. So many of them were not pruned properly early; so many of their crotches were sharp Vs instead of the desirable rounded U shape. So many had grown up confused by which offshoot was supposed to be in charge.
I suspect that all of us Tree Tenders are doing the same thing. Our eyes are a little sharper when we look at our big buddies.
"Now you guys are part of this clan," Marije told us. "You can go out and make sure things are done right."
If you want to be part of the clan, visit www.PittsburghForest.org or call 412.362.6360. The next course series is May 13, 20 and 27 at the Homewood Library, 7101 Hamilton Ave. You do not have to live in the neighborhood in which the classes are held.