Confessions of a bleeding heart tree-tender

By Diana Nelson Jones

Pittsburgh, PA (July 17, 2010)- I am more than a tree hugger. I am a tree mourner, and I’ve been mourning a lot lately. The summer has been dry. We had our last good, steady rain on June 9, and the week of 90-degree temperatures was hell on all our root systems. This is not meant as an excuse for why trees are dying. It is meant to emphasize our responsibility as stewards of the land. This responsibility is among the most important we have, yet many of us do not spare an hour of our lives thinking about it.


I climbed trees as a kid and read books in the grass under them. I cherish them for accommodating us while working heroically to clean our air. To my mind, trees have always been big, or at least bigger than me. In the past year or two, many trees I see look lighter than I am. And many are beyond help. A year ago, I took Tree Tender training from Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest. What I learned magnified my respect for trees and turned me into a pain in the neck.

I try to be diplomatic. When I suggest to young bicyclists that they tie their bikes to the telephone pole instead of the young tree — because nicks leave trunks open to pests and disease, and young trees are most vulnerable — most of them thank me. They get the green thing. But when I told a guy whose dog was peeing on the base of a young tree that that isn’t good for the tree, his reaction made me rethink my mission.

I’ve learned to pick and choose my battles. Last year, I got the gift of a tree on the sidewalk in front of my house from TreeVitalize, a collaboration of the city, county, state and groups that include the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. My street in the Mexican War Streets has about 10 new trees. “Mine” looks like a beech, but I can identify for certain only a handful of types.

In the spring, I bought fine mulch for the well which, unlike city tree wells of old, is a roomy 3-by-10 feet. Once a week, I carry the hose out and turn the water to a fast drip at the base of the tree for several hours. A young tree needs 15 to 20 gallons a week. My tree has survived its graduation from strap and posts, a true accomplishment. Throughout the city, trees still strapped to their posts are wilting, bare of leaves or already kindling.

Some of this demise may not be due to neglect or carelessness or planting in the wrong season. You can water regularly and lose trees. Our best stewardship cannot prevent all untimely death. I get that. The same is true with humans. But as a society, we are horrible stewards of the land. Old and new street trees share their meager space with weeds, litter and cigarette butts. Well-meaning people fill tree wells with perennials, which rob the trees of nutrients they need. Trees live amid weeds, litter, butts, salt run-off and being snapped by trucks and buses.

The cost of planting new trees — the price of the tree, the man hours and equipment — is in the thousands of dollars. Almost the same amount is the cost of replacing one. Where is the chorus of people who scream about “my tax dollars” when it comes to this kind of waste? There’s also abuse and utter disregard of a tree’s value. There’s no torture chamber like Downtown, where trees are stuck in concrete, strangled by Christmas lights, whacked by passing trucks, smothered in grates and sandbags. Sometimes I just stop and stare at the mangled wreck of trees and think, huh? Who wanted this tree and why isn’t he defending it?

TreeVitalize launched in April 2008 with a goal of planting 20,000 trees in the region by 2012. It has planted 4,500 so far, and you can see the evidence along city streets previously dominated by pavement. Young trees line Penn Avenue from Lawrenceville into the Strip and Fifth Avenue Uptown. This is a good thing. But it is only a good thing if residents take responsibility for the trees. From the evidence, too few are. Then there’s the matter of the trees we already have.

All of this planting without the means or manpower to prune and tend older trees reminds me of developers adding subdivisions while the city has plenty of housing and infrastructure that scream for investment. Before we get more of something, we should make sure we can afford to fix and care for what we have. Planting new trees makes us feel green and nurturing. Then some of us forget about them. Thank goodness some of us don’t.

On my way to work through Allegheny Commons Park the other day, I spotted a young woman in a Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy pick-up with a tank of water that filled the truck bed. I asked her about the brown top of the fern-leafed beech that was planted in May as a memorial to the late John Metzler, founder of the Urban Tree Forge. A few of us neighbors have been lugging watering cans to water it, not realizing it is being watered. John met an untimely death at age 46; his tree must live. “It looks like it got its tip burned in the heat wave,” she said, assuring me that the tree was minutes away from its regular watering. “Will it be OK?” I asked, and she said, “Yeaaah,” adding, with a confident smile, “I think it will.”

Related Resources:
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette- Confessions of a bleeding heart tree-tender
Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest