Dear Dot: Who’s Taking Care of My Neighborhood Trees?



Dear Dot,

There is a gorgeous tree outside my apartment — I love looking at it every day. But the other day I saw someone cutting branches. I want to say they were pruning it, but the person did not look like a city worker. Is this a random do-gooder taking care of a tree, or is someone hurting it? How can I help my favorite tree?

–Michael, Brooklyn, NY

Dear Michael,

Trees are such an overlooked resource. Not only do they provide beauty and shade, urban trees offer habitat for birds and bugs, reduce a city’s heat island effect (the increase in temperature thanks to urban infrastructure like roads and buildings), and absorb pollutants.

Like you, Michael, lots of people come to feel very connected to the trees outside of their homes or in their favorite parks, according to Sarah Balistreri, part-time environmental educator with Trees New York and a former Greenpoint resident. Consequently, she suggests we notice the challenges that our urban trees encounter — the bicycle chains that scrape the bark or damage from cars and trucks, tree beds treated like trash bins. “People notice that our trees don’t get the care and regard that they deserve,” she says. “And so a lot of folks want to learn to help out.”

Like the random dude you noticed, Michael. He was not some ordinary do-gooder who happened to have pruning shears stashed in his backpacks but rather a qualified do-gooder who had undergone a “citizen pruner” course and been granted a license to tend to Brooklyn’s, indeed the entire city’s, trees. 

These courses are extremely popular, says Balistreri, a citizen pruner herself. They include three two-hour-long class sessions, a field work session, followed by an exam. This might seem like overkill but pruning trees, done right, keeps trees healthy and hearty. Done wrong, it can be arborcide, introducing disease and weakening trees.

To get involved, visit Trees New York and sign up to be trained in citizen pruning. If you’re not lucky enough to get into this highly sought after program, there’s still plenty you can do to show your love for Brooklyn’s trees. “Pruning is just one component,” Balistreri says. 

All of us can (and should!) water our neighborhood trees — young trees in particular, Balistreri says, “but really all trees don’t get as much water as they would like to have, since they have such a small tree bed through which to absorb water and nutrients.” She also encourages Brooklynites to tend to the tree bed — adding mulch and cultivating the soil. You’re even invited to plant flowers and bulbs, with guidance from the Parks Department

Dog owners can help out street trees by steering their pups away from the trunks. As a dog owner myself, I’m well aware of our canines’ fierce determination to make their mark on the trunks of trees. But Balistreri beseeches us to discourage this. Dog urine adds to the salt content of soil, she explains, urging us to imagine being a thirsty tree and having only salty water to drink. (Thanks for the visual, Sarah. Also … ew.) 

But before we all rush out to water and hug our favorite trees, let me share an incredible resource with you: Each year, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation does a tree census — because each tree is as precious and worth counting as we humans are! The last census was completed in 2015 and that information was then put into a database of all the street trees in the city and — here’s the even better part — you can go to their site and bask in Brooklyn’s 185,430 tiny dots, each of which signifies the presence of a street tree. A click on each little dot reveals that tree’s stats: Species, trunk diameter, location, work that’s been done to the tree, as well as a snapshot. It’s like Tinder for trees without the ghosting and shattering of your self-esteem. I can all but guarantee you will find your true tree love!



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