Kathleen Groll Connolly

Truths about Community Trees
(Convenient and Otherwise)

By Kathleen Groll Connolly

Urban trees have never been more praised for their environmental value or more challenged by people and their practices and beliefs. Some people look at the planting and care of trees as one of the ways almost anyone can help our environment. Others look at a tree and only see 20 bags of leaves waiting to give them a bad back in early November.

"This diversity of opinion is certainly worth noting," says Bill Peace, member of the Board of Selectman in Old Saybrook, CT. "It surprises some people that anyone could object to the planting of a tree, and it surprises other people in a negative way when someone plants new trees near their properties." Peace helped start the Old Saybrook Tree Committee in 1998 and reestablished the position of Town Tree Warden. Since that time, the Committee has overseen the planting of nearly 500 trees and shrubs in public spaces around the town.

"It's been an education in urban forestry," says Peace. Urban Forestry (often called "community forestry") is the study of managing trees in a populated setting.

"There are some surprising challenges, chief among them our summer droughts," he says. In 1999, for instance, southern Connecticut went nearly 20 weeks without rainfall. "But this is closely followed by human challenges. All things considered, state tree authorities say that it's not unusual to lose up to 50% of new urban trees."

He adds, "We've learned a few things along the way such as the need to protect the trees from mowers and weed whackers. Even minor damage to the bark can kill a tree," he says.

"We need to find thoughtful ways of managing the objections to trees," says Peace. "Not just taking them down on whim."

There are ways to encourage healthy urban trees and obtain their many benefits. These include the following:

1. Water, water, water: If there's a newly planted tree near your home or business, give it some water during summer droughts.

2. Use good landscaping practices: Top dress the soil under trees with compost each spring, but keep mulch away from the bark of trunks! Avoid the bad landscaping practices listed in Point 1 on the side bar called "Inconvenient Truths about Urban Trees"

3. Place carefully: Observe lines of sight, power lines, views, and existing shade or sunlight before choosing a spot.

4. Select carefully: Choose tree varieties that will thrive in challenging conditions. That information is available from many sources, including the state extension offices and other organizations, such as the Arbor Day Foundation.

5. Select variety: This will avoid total die-out in an area if one species or another becomes infested.

6. Prune routinely and judiciously: Reduce safety hazards on both public and private property by budgeting some money and time for this important practice.

7. Educate yourself and others: This is the key to living with trees successfully.

Published in Connecticut Woodlands, Summer, 2008

friends walking along tree-lined road in winter

Callery Pears 'Bradford' in Spring BloomInconvenient Truths about Trees in Urban Settings


1. Trees can be damaged by landscaping practices. Three problems stand out. First is the weed whacker, which strips bark off the bottom inches of a tree. Depending on the species, this can kill the tree within a season. Second is the widespread use of "mulch volcanoes," in which mulch is mounded high around the base of the trunk. This has multiple negative effects on the tree, including the encouragement of weak, fibrous roots on the above-ground portion of the trunk. Third is the indiscriminate use of lawn chemicals around the base of trees, which can burn trees roots and have other negative effects.

2. Trees and Dogs: In heavily populated settings, dog wastes can and do kill trees. At Battery City Park in New York City, for instance, tree trunks are surrounded by cages to keep dogs from the root area.

3. Trees are not universally loved. We all know that trees drop leaves, but they can also drip sap on yards and even on buildings, harbor insects, give more shade than wanted, and drop flowers and seed pods. Trees can be difficult to mow around. Trees can create anger among neighbors, as in the Leaf Wars that can occur every fall in any town among neighbors. Tree vandalism can include: copper pennies driven into oaks.

4. Trees can become unattractive. Surrounded by hardscapes, utility lines, landscaping equipment, and automobiles, urban trees have a hard time achieving the natural good looks of their forest cousins. In addition, the Shoreline's summer droughts are particularly tough on young trees. All these conditions undermine their appearance.

5. Trees can have unsafe aspects. Roots can create uneven walking surfaces. Fallen flowers and leaves can create road hazards. Though relatively rare, weak limbs and even whole trees can fall unexpectedly with unpredictable consequences.

6. Trees can block views. Merchants often object when trees obscure their store's visibility. Homeowners object when trees block desirable views. Motorists have safety concerns when trees obscure important lines of sight. This is even more of an issue near the waterfront, where views have economic value.

7. Trees can interfere with power and telephone lines, creating service and safety issues.

8. Some people are afraid of trees. There's even a clinical name for this: dendrophobia. Like other anxieties, it can be treated by medication and therapy—but it sometimes results in the unneeded removal of trees!