The Unfulfilled Promise of Urban Tree Planting

Arbor tape killing a healthy young sweetgum.
Arbor tape killing a healthy young sweetgum. All photos courtesy of the author.
A tree tag presumably still attached to its wire.
A tree tag presumably still attached to its wire.
On the final visit after planting, please remove the guy wires.
On the final visit after planting, please remove the guy wires.

This is a utopian view from a commercial – and maybe somewhat jaded – arborist who has seen hundreds of examples of bad work. Luckily, I have not had to deal with bureaucracy, the pressure of town residents, low-budget bids or property managers with no loyalty. That said, my intention here is not to cast aspersions but to share my observations. As much as landscapers, designers, arborists and municipal employees have done a better job in recent years, there are still too many new trees lost.

As spring approaches, landscapers, arborists and municipalities prepare to plant thousands of trees in hopes of improving the urban forest. Each new year, there are expectations for changes that will increase the success of these newly planted trees. With limited budgets and minimal staff, municipal arborists do their best to diversify the age of their tree inventory.

Over the years, there have been myriad innovations to improve public plantings. Although there have been improvements, we are still struggling with some bad habits. My frustration comes from three sources:

  1. The results are everywhere and obvious. I don’t go out of my way to see these things.
  2. We repeat things that I learned not to do from professor Dennis Ryan in the early ’90s at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture.
  3. Even though industry professionals across the tree and landscape spectrum get indignant about this bad work, no one is responsible? It is a mystery, no one knows who is doing this. Even if most of us do high-quality work, this is a representation of, and reflection on, our industry.

Realistic goals when planting trees

Planting a tree is a truly noble endeavor. Unfortunately, we still see trees planted in places or conditions that prohibit their success. Too often we see failed planting and wasted funds. Conventional design, varying levels of work quality and minimal follow-up care lead to a high mortality rate.

The cruelest irony is for a newly planted tree to survive against all odds with little care only to be girdled by guy wires. I use municipal trees as an easy example, but these same bad practices are just as obvious on commercial properties and, to a lesser extent, on residential properties.

When communities set out to plant trees, they usually have unrealistic goals. The public loves the idea of planting new trees, but how do city arborists maintain all these new trees? This is a daunting task while still having to juggle removals, pruning, storm work and line clearing.

Politicians place too much emphasis on planting, as if it’s the ultimate solution. Planting trees is always met with much enthusiasm and fanfare. Don’t get me wrong, that is wonderful. However, schlepping water out to a remote planting site on a 90-degree July day, which is probably more important but not as glamorous, is just as wonderful.

Planning your planting budget

To ensure better results, planting budgets should be divided into three parts: design, planting and follow-up care.

Our goals should include no longer seeing trees being girdled by guy material.
Our goals should include no longer seeing trees being girdled by guy material. To see a video of a girdled tree, go to this article on and click here.


Plant fewer trees so you have better quality control to improve chances of long-term survival. This is just as true on private properties.

Overplanting usually leads to dead trees and a waste of money. Sometimes it leads to crowded trees that disfigure each other. This is very common in new housing developments, where the builders use way too many small trees mushed together as a curb-appeal tactic. The results are always the same – new homeowner associations dealing with arboricultural triage. To save the ones most likely to survive and have a “normal” shape, you may have to cut down every other tree.

Planting fewer trees is an easy place to start.


We should use larger planting pits when possible. Obviously, in urban areas this is easier said than done. But avoid planting in areas where there is little chance for survival.

Hire highly qualified landscapers or arborists to do the work. The right contractor will do a much better job of selecting and installing the trees.

I realize governments are tied to the low-bid system, but this is the definition of insanity. Hiring the low bidder usually means the tree warden or the property manager has to micro-manage these projects instead of concentrating on other matters. Low bids often lead to bad results. The more professional the contractor, the more they will charge, but that usually translates into a better outcome.

Mulch volcanoes
I cannot find a landscaper, tree company or municipality that over mulches, yet we see mulch volcanoes everywhere? Who is doing this?

Follow-up care

Establish three-year maintenance contracts for the company that does the planting to mandate aftercare. These should include four visits per growing season to water, prune dead and broken branches and monitor for overall health. On the final visit, do one last pruning for dead and broken branches, fertilize with a low-nitrogen organic fertilizer and, please, remove the guy wires.

Individually, these ideas are no revelation. Collectively, they are certain to increase plant life expectancy. Are these recommendations realistic? That remains to be seen. However, if these changes can be implemented consistently, it will increase longevity as well as provide a better return on our investment.


In my 40 years in the business, there has been a good deal of progress – better plant diversity, improved species selection, better follow-up care and a more thoughtful approach. The new urban-street-tree pits are more innovative. We have done a better job of using tree grates less and utilizing prescription soils. However, there is still work to be done.

Again, you still see too many trees planted that have no realistic chance of reaching maturity. With our increasingly hot, dry summers, we need to extend the aftercare or we will see more of the same. If we can improve the follow-up maintenance, we will have much better results.

Our goals should be to no longer see mulch volcanoes, trunks damaged by lawn mowers, too many trees dead from lack of water and trees being girdled by guy material. Is it an innovation that arbor tape girdles the trees now, not wire and hoses? It is so frustrating to still see girdled trees everywhere. Why do we guy trees? How many trees have you seen blown over or growing crooked? Nowhere near as many as you see girdled.

Just as we, as individuals, are only as good as our worst work, collectively we are only as good as the worst work our industry does. Let’s try to learn from our past and be more innovative in our approach going forward.

David M. Anderson, CTSP and Massachusetts certified arborist, is a manager with Mayer Tree Service Inc., a 30-year TCIA member company based in Essex, Massachusetts. He also is a member of the TCI Magazine Editorial Advisory Committee.

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