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Gardening How-to Articles

Caring for City Street Trees

It’s not easy being a street tree in an urban environment. In New York City alone, 6,000 to 7,000 street trees die each year. When considering what a street tree has to endure—from drought and small growing spaces to infertile, compacted soil, it’s easy to see why the mortality rate is so high. But it doesn’t have to be this way. By giving street trees a little maintenance and care, you can help ensure that the 20,000 new street trees planted this year by MillionTreesNYC, the city’s forestry initiative, survive.

Trees add beauty to our neighborhoods and go a long way to enhance our quality of life. They improve air quality and reduce storm-water runoff, give us shade on sunny days, and provide wildlife habitat. Street trees are an essential part of keeping an urban environment happy and healthy. Here are some ways to care for your street trees.


The area of exposed soil in a tree bed is relatively small, so even without a drought, a street tree can have a hard time receiving and retaining all the water it needs. Newly planted trees require 10 to 15 gallons of water a week. Mature trees do best when receiving 8 to 10 gallons of water a week. Be sure to water slowly so the moisture sinks in and doesn’t simply run off into the street. Set a hose to trickle water into the bed for an hour; or prick a few holes on one side of a clean garbage can, set it next to the tree bed, and fill it with your tree’s water allotment.


A layer of mulch helps conserve moisture, and one made from natural materials will break down over time, adding nutrients to the soil. Choices include compost, wood chips, shredded leaves, or commercial organic mulches made from nutshells or other agricultural by-products. Covering the bed with brick or stone pavers is a bad idea; even loosely placed, they will prevent a significant amount of rainwater from being absorbed.

Plant the Tree Bed

Tree beds offer precious garden space to urban dwellers, and planting flowers or groundcovers with shallow root systems conserves moisture and adds beauty to the bed, with the added bonus of reminding pet walkers and other pedestrians that this is valued ground. Avoid large shrubs and water-hungry plants that will compete with the tree. Instead, try planting spring bulbs like snowdrops, crocuses, and miniature daffodils (which are shunned by squirrels rooting for food). After they fade, small annuals with shallow roots like zinnias and impatiens, or perennial groundcovers like bugleweed or stonecrop, will keep the bed attractive.

When planting or adding organic amendments to the bed, use a hand cultivator to gently loosen the soil to a depth of one to two inches without damaging tree roots, which are often quite close to the surface. Remove older soil if needed to accommodate your plants’ roots.

Don’t Smother Your Tree!

Raising the level of the soil above a tree’s base can actually kill the tree. Roots need oxygen, which they get from air trapped in soil. When too much soil is piled up, the air is squeezed out. Soil or mulch mounded up against the base of the tree can also cause the bark to rot, providing an entry point for pests and diseases, and create a home for gnawing rodents.

Well-meaning urbanites who build impermeable tree guards more than a few inches high and fill the bed to the brim with soil or mulch imperil the tree’s long-term health. Fortunately, there are alternatives to stone-wall tree guards.

Install the Right Tree Guard

Guards help protect your tree from animals, foot traffic, and damage from cars and bicycles. Monitor the guard as the tree grows to make sure it never touches the tree, continues to let water flow into and out of the bed, and does not allow soil to build up above the base of the tree.

Airy wrought or cast iron tree guards are elegant and durable, but they can be expensive. Two less expensive options:

  • Post and Chain

    Drill a hole through one end of each of four sturdy wooden stakes or lengths of pipe. Drive one stake or pipe in each corner of the tree bed, then loop rope or chain through them.
  • Log Cabin

    Stack pieces of wood alternately as if making a small, three-sided log cabin (open side to the curb is best). Drill down through each corner, then drive a length of rebar through the holes and into the soil to stabilize the guard.

Become a Tree Steward

Many cities supplement their municipal workforce with citizen volunteers who care for the trees in their own communities, including these two programs in New York City.

  • Citizen Pruners

    Provides professional training and a license from the Parks Department to care for public trees.
  • Street Tree Stewardship Initiative

    Gives free training, tools, and authorization to work in tree beds. Stewards can adopt specific trees to care for or reach out to community gardens and block associations to train other citizens in street tree care.

Additional Resources:

Street Tree Stewardship
Free classes and more.

Request a street tree and learn more about urban tree care.

The Tree Care Primer
Pruning and care tips from BBG’s arborist.

Rebecca Bullene is a former editor at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She is the proprietor of Greenery NYC, a creative floral and garden design company that specializes in botanical works of art including terrariums, urban oasis gardens, and whimsical floral arrangements.


  • Yvonne Roman April 9, 2020

    I have a 100 foot tree rooted sideways then up! There are thick vines clinging to it. Is there an organization that will work pro bono to help save it? With all the construction, trees here have been eliminated. The birds and other creatures thrive on this tree. Any suggestions are appreciated

  • Sandra Patterson June 28, 2019

    Thank you for the article about caring for trees in the city. I live in a city with a small backyard. I think I want to have a tree be able to grow there!

  • BBG Staff October 19, 2017

    Arlene: We are not sure how the tree will respond. Now that there is more light, it might send out limbs on the side, or at least new growth next year may occur on all sides. Since that side of the tree has been newly exposed to the elements, it needs a little more attention. Make sure the tree gets at least 10 to 15 gallons of water a week (May to October). Also, gently loosen the top half inch of soil around the tree and add about a half-inch layer of compost. Then add a layer of mulch 2 to 3 inches deep, being careful to keep it at least 6 inches away from the trunk. Mulch smothers weeds, helps retain moisture, and makes good compost when it decomposes. Replenish the mulch as it breaks down, and replace it every spring to remove toxic salts from winter snow removal.

  • Arlene King-Robinson September 30, 2017

    The city tree has suddenly been exposed because a neighbor tree was taken down.  The city tree is only one half a tree.  Will the other side of it sprout limbs?  Is there something I could do to assist?

  • esther daiell June 30, 2017

    A tree in my backyard seems healthy, but a part has dead branches. What should I do to keep the tree healthy?

  • Rukmin May 22, 2014

    Please give information and care for the honeylocust tree that was planted on my block today in Brooklyn. Thanks.

  • Mark Bergman November 27, 2011

    Greetings and Happy Holidays! I have been a horticulturist since 2002. I spent 2 years studying, by way of hands on learning, with a teacher and only 3 other students. I had and maintained my own 30ft. Green House, along with caring for the outdoors gardens and vegetable crops planted and grown by the workers.The facility where I obtained these skills is in Upstate N.Y., in a Medium security “prison” named Fishkill, in which I am sure you have heard of, being that Fishkill has the only horticulture program for many, many miles.We have grown, decorated, and beautified all of the prisons in New York as well as the home of the Governor, Mayor of the town of Beacon, and NYC.

    I have worked on landscaping as well. I am mainly writing this to ask if there are any other functions that I can do for my trees in NYC, to help to preserve and prolong their life. I care very much for the wild life and plant life of our planet, being that all life is at danger just by living on the planet, mostly….no, completely due to the human species living here. I have spent most of my 55 years on Earth working for the Associated Press. 30+ years photographing all man does to maim and destroy all that lives on this world, including the murder of each other. If there is anything that I can do to help, or even work here for you, I would be a great working and caring asset to you all. Please send me any tips you have for me to help our greens survive longer or make them stronger. Thank you, Mark Bergman

  • Amanda Mitchell June 21, 2011


    I am contacting you from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I am apart of a Young Professional group here at BWH and think it would be a great idea to do some beautification around the Boston area. I was wondering if I could speak with someone from your organization regarding garden beds for street trees.

    Thank you,

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Image, top of page: Antonio M. Rosario