Street Tree Bed Care: Tales from the Trenches

Street Tree Stewardship
Some friendly advice to passersby can go a long way toward keeping unwanted material out of your tree beds. Photo by Sarah Schmidt.

Caring for and gardening in a street tree bed is an undeniably good deed. A well-thought-out garden can beautify your block and help protect the tree’s health. But many potential tree bed gardeners have reservations about gardening along a public thoroughfare. Fear not. Instead, read on to assuage your worries.

Isn’t it gross?

Only if you don’t wear gloves. It’s unavoidable that a certain amount of urban detritus will make its way into your beds, but it’s rarely anything that an inexpensive pair of gardening gloves won’t protect you from. “You do want to be careful and protect yourself from things like broken glass, but it’s really the worst right at the beginning,” says Julie Innis, who has maintained the tree beds in front of her building in Prospect Heights for eight years. Once you do some initial weeding and cleaning up, passersby will start to respect your work and litter less. Really.

Is it okay to let my kids help?

Sure. Just do a little prep work beforehand to clear the beds of glass and anything particularly nasty. Have them work on the sidewalk side to avoid traffic, and if you can, have them wear gloves too. Just don’t stress out if they prefer not to. “You know, hands are washable,” says Vivian Epstein, a veteran tree bed gardener and mom who recently enlisted her neighbors—kids included—to clean up and plant the beds in front of their Prospect Heights apartment building. “Kids actually like getting their hands dirty,” she says, “so just protect them from anything awful and let them have fun.”

How can I stop dogs from doing their thing in my tree beds?

Quick answer: You can’t. So don’t drive yourself nuts trying to completely eliminate the problem. That said, dog urine can be harmful to trees and plants, says Maureen O’Brien, BBG’s GreenBridge community field manager, so it’s worth trying to minimize the damage. Installing tree guards will go a long way toward discouraging most dogs. “You’ll also want to water really well. It will help dilute the salts left by the dogs, and trees need 15-20 gallons a week to thrive,” she says.

How can I prevent my neighbors’ well-intentioned but harmful acts?

You mean like the building super who “helpfully” adds bleach water to the tree beds to kill weeds? Or the lady next door who keeps piling suffocating amounts of mulch against the tree trunks? Distressing as such acts can be, the fact that your neighbors want to get involved is a good sign, so try not to scare them away by delivering harsh criticism. Instead, consider organizing a tree bed care day for your whole block so you can bring them into the loop. “Events are a great way to get everyone working together in a friendly way, and then you can deliver advice to the whole group. That way no one will take it personally,” says O’Brien.

Learn more about street tree care.

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