Denver Digs Trees

(Denver, CO)- The Park People, in partnership with the Denver Parks & Recreation Department, distributes more than 1,000 street trees annually to Denver residents. Nearly 30,000 public trees have been planted through this program, called Denver Digs Trees.

Category: Program Model
Each year The Park People holds a tree sale on the same day as the Denver Digs Trees tree distribution. Last year approximately 1,500 trees were sold. Individual residents, neighborhood organizations, affordable housing agencies, schools and civic groups contribute to making Denver Digs Trees a success. More than 400 volunteers participate.
The Park People, a private nonprofit organization, preserves, enhances and advocates for Denver’s parks, recreation resources, open space and urban forest. Since it was established in 1969, it has raised millions of dollars for public improvements including historical preservation, public art restorations, parks improvements and public tree plantings.
In 1990, under the initiative of Denver’s mayor, a bond was issued that provided funding to increase the number of trees planted along public streets. The city Department of Parks & Recreation, which was charged with administering the bond funds for trees, partnered with The Park People to develop a plan for street planting. The result was the enhancement of Denver Digs Trees, a program previously operated by neighborhood residents informally distributing trees out of their garages since the late 1980s. Denver Digs Trees is now the most visible project of The Park People and distributes more than 1,000 street trees annually.
Although Denver Digs Trees was originally supported exclusively by government funds, for the last four years it has relied mostly on private resources.
Trees distributed through Denver Digs Trees must be planted along the street in the public right of way. Participants are required to have adequate space on their properties to meet the spacing guidelines dictated by Denver city and county.
Participants agree to plant the trees immediately after pick-up and to care for the trees, including trimming, weekly watering spring through fall and monthly watering in winter. Volunteers assist persons who are physically disabled. There is a $20 program fee per tree. The fee is waived in certain underserved areas. There are no guarantees on the trees.
Planning Calendar
Late summer: Tree selection and ordering
In late summer The Park People meets with city officials, a Master Gardener and a certified arborist to discuss tree selection for the coming year. The group discusses a number of factors including number of trees sold the previous year, the survival rates of particular species previously planted, adaptability to climate, species diversification goals and the inventory available at their contact growers.
Based on these discussions, The Park People places tree orders with two growers in Oregon. These are the growers from which several retail nurseries in town also order.
Fall: Applications
In early fall The Park People produces a request form for the program which includes the distribution date and spacing requirements. A list of available tree types is attached. Applications are due in late January or early February.
February: Site visits
Once applications are received, a trained volunteer site inspector visits the property to confirm the proper spacing and mark where the tree is to be planted along the street. Currently there are about 60 volunteer site inspectors who are trained by the city forestry office. Site inspectors receive a checklist to use during inspections. Most applications are approved after inspection.
March: Tree care workshops
In March, The Park People offers two two-hour workshops on tree planting and care for participants. Attendance is voluntary.
April: Tree distribution and tree sale
In April, participants receive confirmation letters indicating their pick-up site. There are currently six distribution sites spread throughout the city.
Four days before distribution day, trucks arrive from the growers and 20 to 30 volunteers help unload the trees. This process takes two days. On distribution day, volunteers assist participants with loading their trees and with questions on planting and care. In addition, all participants receive a tree care booklet published by The Park People. The booklet is a 2005 National Arbor Day Award winner.
The Park People also holds a tree sale at the six distribution sites on the same day. Bare root trees are sold for $45 and trees with ball and burlap wrapping are available for $65. These prices are considerably lower than the cost of similar trees at a local nursery. Last year The Park People sold more than 1,400 trees for yard planting.
Late Summer, Early Fall: Survival checks
In the late summer or early fall, volunteers check on the trees planted in the spring to determine how they are faring. This data is used to help The Park People determine which species should be ordered the following year.
Funding and Staffing
Original funding for Denver Digs Trees came from a bond issue in 1990. For the next decade the program was funded exclusively through government monies. Five years ago when the bond funding ended, the program needed to make a radical switch to private funding. The Park People hired its first full-time executive director who devoted most of his time initially to fundraising. Within the year, he was able to secure private funding for the bulk of program costs.
Patrick Hayes, executive director of The Park People, says, “The most important part of fundraising is to ask … Trees are apolitical. There is a lot of compelling information on how trees improve a community. And there are a host of willing participants once you make this case.”
Xcel Energy Foundation was one of the first corporate sponsors. The involvement of Xcel helped attract other investors who now include Esurance, The Home Depot Foundation, Denver Water, the Alliance for Community Trees and the Colorado Tree Coalition. Denver Digs Trees currently boasts about $70,000 in corporate sponsorships in addition to in-kind support from various organizations.
Denver Housing & Neighborhood Development Services has offered public support in the past few years. The Department of Parks & Recreation’s in-kind support includes providing access to park locations for tree distribution, staff consultants at volunteer trainings and at each distribution, and other logistical assistance.
In 2001, American Forests conducted a tree canopy assessment in Denver. The Park People used the results of this analysis to create a new initiative to close the equity gaps that existed in underserved neighborhoods (which also had the lowest tree canopy coverage). Ten neighborhoods were originally targeted to receive additional outreach and free trees under Denver Digs Trees. This was recently expanded to 19 neighborhoods, thanks to support from the city’s Housing & Neighborhood Development Services department using Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds.
The Park People currently has a two-person staff. The executive director spends about 50 percent of his time on Denver Digs Trees. The program manager spends 100 percent of her time on Denver Digs Trees.
Marketing and Volunteer Recruitment
Marketing is one of the biggest challenges Denver Digs Trees faces. Every year the program needs to find a new market as those who have planted trees the previous year are unlikely to buy the next year (assuming tree success).
Each year The Park People mails the Denver Digs Trees request form to new homeowners from a list in the county assessor’s office. It also sends the form to 12,000 persons on its mailing list. The request form is also made available at its website,
In addition, The Park People’s volunteers conduct door-to-door canvassing in the 19 targeted neighborhoods, leaving door tags advertising the program.
The Park People also promotes Denver Digs Trees and its tree sale through press releases to local print and other media outlets.
Volunteers play an integral role at every stage of the Denver Digs Trees program, from site inspection through post-planting survival checks. Nearly 400 volunteers participate on an annual basis. The Park People relies on many long-term volunteers who come from a variety of sources including neighborhood associations, service clubs, university groups, corporate sponsors and former Denver Digs Trees participants.
In 2006, The Park People planted 1,200 street trees through Denver Digs Trees, sold between 1,400 and 1,500 yard trees at its same-day tree sale and planted an additional 100 trees through community projects. Since its inception, nearly 30,000 public trees have been added to Denver’s streets through Denver Digs Trees.
The survival rate for trees planted through Denver Digs Trees is 80 percent.
1. Before embarking on a public tree planting program, it is essential to understand city ordinances surrounding planting on public property. These regulations vary greatly among localities. In Denver, a permit is required for planting in public spaces, and homeowners are responsible for planting, maintaining and/or removing trees in the right of way in front of their home.
2. Cultivate a productive relationship with the appropriate city agency that works with urban forestry issues. Your organization needs to be aware that city and agency priorities and goals change over the years.
3. Encourage residents to take ownership of the program and “lead the charge.” Involved and motivated residents encourage others to work with the program and are key ingredients to the program’s long-term success and the survival of planted trees.
4. Make it easy to participate in the program. The Park People discovered that requiring attendance at a tree care workshop limited the number of persons interested in taking part in the program. Instead of mandating attendance at a workshop, The Park People offers participants several ways to obtain the information needed to properly plant and care for their trees and allows them to choose which way is best for them. Experts are available at tree distribution points to answer questions, and a tree care booklet is dispensed at pick-up.
5. Start simple and small. This allows you to measure community interest and to better control for unknown variables such as weather conditions, other competing events and media coverage.
6. Trial-and-error is the prime way of learning what works and what doesn’t work in your area. Help your program evolve and grow in the way that best accommodates your environment.
7. It is difficult to precisely predict supply and demand for large-scale tree distributions from year to year. Realize this and develop ways to adjust to these fluctuations. The Park People can place trees in its same-day tree sale when orders through Denver Digs Trees are smaller than expected. In addition, it organizes community plantings for remaining trees. On the other hand, when demand exceeds supply, The Park People is able to place late orders to the growers. It is important to have adequate storage space and volunteers to assist with these variations.
Contact information
The Park People
715 S. Franklin Street
Denver, Colorado 80209
Phone: 303-722-6262
Fax: 303-722-8812
(c) 2007 Alliance for Community Trees