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Difference Maker

One man's volunteer effort to plant trees in San Francisco

As a volunteer, Charlie Starbuck has helped to plant trees by the thousands on the streets of San Francisco, a city long on charm but short on leafy green trees.

By Paul Van SlambrouckContributor / April 5, 2010

For almost 30 years, Charlie Starbuck has volunteered to plant trees all over San Francisco, one street at a time, as a member of the nonprofit group Friends of the Urban Forest.

Paul Van Slambrouck

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San Francisco

Charlie Starbuck has them in just about every part of this city. Walk a block or two in virtually any neighborhood, from the concrete canyons of the financial district to the windblown avenues of the Outer Sunset and Mr. Starbuck's fingerprints are there.

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It might be a Brisbane box, a bronze loquat, a primrose, or a purple leaf plum. Whatever the species of tree, chances are excellent that Starbuck helped plant it.

Not as in ordered the tree or arranged for the planting. But as in actually put his fingers in the dirt and planted it.

A soft-spoken gentleman fond of berets, Starbuck has volunteered for a citywide tree-planting program since 1981, nearly without interruption. That's almost 30 years of weekly plantings, without pay, come rain or shine.

"For Charlie to be that consistent..." says Doug Wildman, program director of San Francisco's Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF), his voice trailing off as he searches for the right superlative. "Well, he's our rock." FUF (www.fuf.net) is the nonprofit group for which Starbuck has volunteered all these years.

On a recent dewy winter morning, neighbors gather in front of a row of San Francisco homes. Staff members from FUF have already been busy positioning trees in 15-gallon pots in front of the homes, whose owners had signed up for the subsidized $75-per-tree planting.

This is a relatively small project – about 15 trees. Water and cable lines had been identified so they wouldn't be mistakenly cut. All that is left to do is dig the holes, plant the trees, and stake them.

Neighbors and volunteers had been asked to meet at 9 a.m. Like clockwork, a few minutes before 9, up the block chugs Starbuck, toting his little black satchel of tools, his clippers in a holster hanging from his belt. He's come from across town, courtesy of a city bus. Since moving to the city, he's never owned a car.

For all its charm, San Francisco is not particularly leafy. A 2006 study by the US Forest Service found that about 12 percent of the city is covered by trees. In contrast, trees cover nearly 29 percent of Washington D.C., 22 percent of Boston, and 21 percent of New York.

Sandy soil, salty air, lots of wind, and narrow streets are common explanations for San Francisco's low tree count.

For nearly three decades, Starbuck has been on a mission to change that.

The average tree planting is 30 trees per outing, though 60- and even 90-tree plantings occur from time to time. Starbuck acts as a guide and teacher to the home-owners and volunteers. As he works, he likes to talk about – what else, trees.

"My current favorite is the strawberry tree," he offers. Tree experts here are constantly on the look out for species that can handle the local climate. The strawberry tree, with its mock red fruit that hangs in draping clusters, is in high demand. "They're hard to find right now because of the popularity," says FUF planting manager Heidi Lakics.

Care is relatively simple. Most of San Francisco has sandy soil, so it is almost impossible to overwater the trees, Starbuck says. Just before a sapling goes in the ground, Starbuck uses a box cutter to make vertical slices down each side of the root ball so the roots don't continue to grow in a circular fashion, as they do in their container.

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