BOSTON — Most people associate the word forestry with visions of vast evergreen stands sheltered beneath majestic mountains, not quarter-acre house plots in suburbia.
Though it may sound like an oxymoron, urban forestry is gaining attention as a way to broaden city dwellers' understanding of nature and ecology.
"The biggest difference between a rural forest and an urban forest is that in a rural forest, the dominant species is trees, where as in a town, it's people," says Mary Tebo, New Hampshire Community Tree Steward Coordinator. "But you still have soil, wildlife, and water. All the resources of the woods are in your backyard."
Ms. Tebo's program is one of many springing up across the United States, helping people become more familiar with the benefits and responsibilities of planting trees. (Arbor Day in the US is April 30, this year.)
A growing body of evidence seems to indicate that urban forestry can not only improve the physical environment but the social environment as well, research supporters are quick to point out.
"Planting trees around your house will cool your house in the summer and protect it from the winds in the winter," says Tebo. "One tree cools the air as much as five air conditioners running 20 hours a day. Trees can also raise your property value as much as 15 percent. Apartments also rent faster and have higher occupancy rates in wooded areas."
Mindy Maslin, project manager of Environmental Education for the Philadelphia Green project, has her own list of tree positives, but shaded by her background in social work. "When we take a vacant lot and turn it into a pocket park, the people in the neighborhood start coming out and spending time there, and then organizing other projects like reducing street crime. Trees are an organizing tool."
Best to think 20 years ahead
Maslin draws attention to research done by University of Illinois, which compared housing projects in Chicago. Tenants in projects landscaped with trees "reported stronger family ties and better relations with neighbors than those living near or in less-green areas."
Before you go out and plant your first tree, you should bone up first. Tebo cautions that it is important to pick appropriate trees for your situation. "If you're planting where there are wires overhead or the ground is surrounded by pavement, you won't want to plant a tree that grows large. If you're planting for shade, a crab apple is inappropriate, but it would be great for providing color and food for wildlife."
Maslin adds some additional tips. "A big mistake is not thinking about what a tree will look like in 20 years, when that cute little sapling is suddenly blocking the sidewalk or obscuring a sign and the highway department wants to cut limbs off."
A newly transplanted tree also requires a lot of TLC. "A lot of people think a tree will get enough water from rainfall after being transplanted," says Maslin. "They forget that in transplanting you've cut off a lot of the root system the tree uses to collect water. You need to water the tree for the entire first year afterwards."
Mulch is also important. It holds moisture and prevents the growth of weeds and grasses that steal nutrients. But Maslin says she has seen an epidemic of "mulch volcanoes," with mulch piled a foot or more high against the trunk. "Not only does it cause the trunk to rot, but the root system is buried a foot deeper than it is used to and is smothered as a result," she says.
Plant your own tree farm
Because of the potential for mistakes, first-time tree planters may want to contact local experts. A call to the county extension service or the state forester will probably result in some good information. Or you can seek out a community-based forestry volunteer such as the Philadelphia Tree Tenders or New Hampshire Tree Stewards (see sidebar, left).
One good way to learn more about urban forestry is to create a Backyard Tree Farm. This program, started by Don Black, a New Hampshire county forester, has spread across the United States. Unlike a traditional tree farm, which requires 10 acres of land, backyard tree farms can be any size.
Even an apartment-dweller could participate with the permission of the property owner according to Tebo. "You could also contact your local school and see if you could help set up a backyard tree farm in the schoolyard."
Participating in the program involves completing a number of projects designed to help people better understand and care for whatever land they may own. "The amount of education you get is just tremendous. You do projects related to the air, water, soils, every area of natural resources."
Part of the backyard tree-farm program requires participants to go "beyond the backyard," and Tebo says there's a lot you can do in your community to achieve this. You can work on ways to conserve open space in communities, such as developing voluntarily protected greenways. Or you can inventory the type and health of the trees in your downtown area, and develop a management plan for them.
For a list of urban forestry and tree programs: www.ag.uiuc.edu/~forestry/guide/sec11.html