Tree Planting for Urban Forest Restoration

Urban forests play a crucial role in making our cities more livable and sustainable. As urban areas expand, restoring and expanding the urban tree canopy should be a priority. Thoughtfully planted and maintained urban trees provide enormous environmental, economic, and social benefits. This guide will provide tips and best practices for restoring urban forests through tree planting initiatives.

Benefits of Urban Forests

Urban forests make cities more livable in the following ways:

Environmental Benefits

  • Improve air quality by removing air pollutants
  • Absorb and store carbon dioxide
  • Cool surrounding areas by providing shade and through evapotranspiration
  • Reduce stormwater runoff and soil erosion
  • Create habitat for wildlife

Economic Benefits

  • Increase property values
  • Reduce heating and cooling costs for nearby buildings
  • Prolong pavement life by providing shade and absorbing water
  • Attract more customers to retail districts

Social Benefits

  • Improve physical and mental health
  • Reduce stress
  • Decrease violence and crime
  • Foster community pride and cohesion

Given these tremendous benefits, expanding and restoring the urban forest should be a top priority for city governments.

Selecting Sites for Tree Planting

When selecting sites for tree planting, consider the following factors:

Available Space

Consider the height and crown spread that species may reach at maturity. Avoid planting under overhead utilities. Leave enough room for trees to grow without interfering with infrastructure.

Soil Conditions

Test soil texture, depth, drainage, and pH. Remediate compacted soils when possible. Select species suited to the site’s soil conditions.

Sunlight Exposure

Determine how much sunlight an area receives. Plant sun-loving trees on southern exposures and shade-tolerant trees on northern exposures.

Air Pollution Tolerance

Areas with poor air quality from vehicle emissions and industrial activity require pollution-tolerant species. Consult local tree species lists.

Neighborhood Context

Evaluate the site’s role in the surrounding community. High-traffic areas should have hardy, attractive specimen trees. Residential areas may feature flowering ornamentals.

With careful site analysis and selection, tree plantings can successfully restore local urban forests.

Selecting Trees for Planting

Choosing the right trees to plant is critical. Consider the following criteria when selecting species:

Mature Size

Select trees that will fit the site at maturity without needing frequent pruning. Consider both height and canopy spread.

Form or Shape

Choose trees with forms and shapes that enhance the site. Columnar trees work well in tight spaces. Weeping trees make attractive specimens.

Soil, Light, and Moisture Requirements

Match the tree’s requirements to site conditions for healthy growth. Plant drought-tolerant varieties in dry areas.

Fruit or Flower Litter

Some trees drop copious fruit or flowers. Avoid placing these next to walkways or gathering areas unless litter can be managed.

Native or Non-Native

Native trees support local wildlife best. But non-native trees can also thrive if conditions suit them. Select trees adapted to the local climate.

Pest or Disease Resistance

Choose trees unlikely to be impacted by current pest or disease threats in the area. This improves survival rates.

Consult local tree lists and landscaping resources to select the best trees for your conditions. Favor native species when possible.

Preparing Sites and Planting Properly

Proper site preparation and planting ensures tree survival and longevity. Follow these best practices:

Clear Area of Weeds, Grass and Debris

Remove vegetation and debris that would compete with the tree. Grade the site flat if needed.

Test Drainage

Dig a hole as deep and wide as the root ball. Fill with water. If it doesn’t drain fully in 12 hours, improve drainage first.

Dig Wide Planting Holes

Holes should be 2-3 times wider than the root ball but no deeper. Wide holes encourage horizontal root growth.

Handle Root Balls Carefully

Always lift trees by the root ball, not the trunk. Carefully remove any wrapping and cut away circling roots.

Place Tree at Correct Depth

The root flare should sit level with the top of the hole. Don’t plant too deep. Add or remove soil as needed.

Backfill Properly

Fill the hole gently with the original soil. Break up large clumps. Do not amend backfill soil.

Stake Only When Necessary

If staking is needed, use wide straps in a figure-8 pattern. Remove stakes after one growing season.

Apply 2-4 Inches Mulch

Cover the backfilled area with mulch. Pull it back several inches from the trunk.

Water Thoroughly at Planting

Water until the entire backfill area is moist. Continue watering until established.

Following these protocols correctly will optimize tree survival and growth rates.

Early Tree Care and Maintenance

Caring for trees properly after planting is crucial for their survival in the years after establishment. Here are key maintenance guidelines:


Water newly planted trees thoroughly once a week during the first two years. Soak the entire root zone.

Weed Control

Apply mulch and remove weeds and grass growing near the tree. Competing plants steal water and nutrients from establishing trees.

Insect and Disease Monitoring

Inspect trees periodically for common pests like borers, scale, and aphids. Also check for diseases. Treat promptly when found.

Prune Only When Necessary

Never remove more than 25% of the canopy at once. Avoid pruning the central leader on young trees.

Protect Trunk from Damage

Install tree guards or fencing if lawn equipment, wildlife, or vandals could wound the bark and kill the tree.

Fertilize Sparingly

Too much fertilizer can damage establishing trees. Go easy on fertilizer for the first few years after planting.

With attentive care and monitoring in the first seasons, newly planted trees will thrive and improve in health and vigor.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Many common mistakes can doom developing urban trees. Be vigilant against these issues:

Planting Too Deep

This suffocates roots and kills trees. Ensure the root flare sits level with the soil when planting.

Leaving Wrapping and Tags On

Remove all wrapping, strings, and tags from branches and trunks. These can girdle and kill trees as they grow.

Allowing Compacted Soils

Construction often compacts soils so that roots cannot penetrate or get oxygen. Deep rip or replace bad soils before planting trees.

Not Watering Enough

Underwatering is the most common reason urban trees fail, especially in the first seasons. Thorough, consistent water is vital.

Using Staking Improperly

Leaving staking materials on too long causes girdling wounds. Use wide straps and remove after one year.

Applying Too Much Mulch

Too much mulch piled against the trunk holds moisture and rots the bark. Pull mulch several inches back from the flare.

Ignoring Infrastructure Conflicts

Planting large trees under power lines or too close to buildings eventually requires severe pruning. Choose locations carefully by considering mature tree size.

With knowledge of these hazards, careful site analysis, and proper planting and care, tree death and infrastructure conflicts can be avoided in urban plantings.

Ongoing Urban Forest Management

Sustaining healthy urban forests requires ongoing, coordinated management across public and private lands. Tree care should focus on:

Routine Tree Inspections

Regularly survey trees for injury, disease, pests, and infrastructure conflicts. Address issues promptly.

Pruning Cycles

Prune trees on a 5-7 year cycle to maintain structure, health, and safety. Always use proper pruning methods.

Pest and Disease Control

Monitor for threats like emerald ash borer or oak wilt. Remove infected trees swiftly to limit spread.

Soil Health Management

Cultivate soils with compost, aeration, and mulch to support biology and root growth.

Watering and Fertilizing as Needed

Apply supplemental water and nutrients during droughts or when trees show nutrient deficiencies.

Tree Inventory Database

Catalog tree species, health, and maintenance records. Plan future planting and care based on data.

Succession Planning and Diversity

Phase out overplanted species and add variety over time. Plan for eventual tree mortality.

With coordinated planning and care across public and private urban forest stewards, cities can continually improve tree health, benefits, and longevity.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the best trees to plant in cities?

Some excellent urban species include oak, elm, maple, honeylocust, hackberry, linden, London planetree, Turkish hazelnut, ginkgo, and bald cypress. Choose non-invasive, non-brittle trees suited to the site and pest/disease resistant.

How much do trees reduce air pollution?

Trees remove significant amounts of ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants. Large healthy trees provide the greatest air quality improvements.

How can I save on my energy bills by planting trees?

Strategically planting deciduous trees that shed leaves in winter to the west and south sides of your home provides cooling shade in summer and allows warmth from the sun in winter. This reduces air conditioning and heating costs.

What is the best way to plant a bare root tree?

Dig a cone-shaped hole slightly wider than the roots. Carefully spread roots in hole, keeping the tree at the proper depth. Backfill with native soil, tamping gently to remove air pockets. Water thoroughly after planting and as needed to establish.

How much water does a newly planted tree need?

Ideally, new trees need about 10 gallons of water per week during the growing season for the first two years. Water slowly, allowing moisture to fully soak into the root zone.

How can I get involved in urban forestry efforts?

Contact local tree nonprofits about volunteer opportunities for planting, care events, tree inventories to identify needs, and increasing awareness of the value of urban forests. Attend city council meetings and advocate for better tree protections and funding.

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