Want To Combat Climate Change? Get Out And Plant A Tree

Cook County Forest Preserves
The Ted Lechowicz Woods in Chicago are part of the Cook County Forest Preserves. Ken Davis / WBEZ
Cook County Forest Preserves
The Ted Lechowicz Woods in Chicago are part of the Cook County Forest Preserves. Ken Davis / WBEZ

Want To Combat Climate Change? Get Out And Plant A Tree

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Chicago and its surrounding suburbs need more trees — and not just for the beauty they offer. Trees are an environmental gift and, some say, have psychological and health benefits as well.

In recent years, the region has lost millions of ash trees alone to the voracious insect called the emerald ash borer. Folks with the Chicago Region Trees Initiative at The Morton Arboretum say that to boost our region’s tree population — and provide a hedge against disease and climate changes — we need to plant 22 million trees before 2050.

Twenty-two million trees! But you don’t have to be an arborist to help.

As it turns out, early fall is one of the best times to plant trees. Here’s a quick guide to putting in and celebrating trees.

When’s the best time to plant a tree in the Chicago area?

The short time between the beginning of autumn (Sept. 21) and into October is prime time for planting trees — even better than the spring. Your new tree will concentrate its energy into building its root system, since it doesn’t have to support the leaves above. That sets the tree up well for spring, when it can get busy building a new crop of leaves.

Plant a tree on your own property

It’s not that hard. You can do it yourself. Here are the steps to successfully planting a healthy tree.

Chicago trees
Chicagoans get creative presenting their yards and parkways. Linda Paul / WBEZ

Select the tree that’s right for you

You’ll need to select a tree that can thrive in your location. You’ll need to consider how much sunlight the spot receives, the kind of soil you have and the amount of space the mature tree will take up. There are guides available on commercial nursery sites, but one of the best is provided by The Morton Arboretum. Using their Tree Selector, you answer a few key questions about your site and preferences, and it serves up a list of the best trees for your situation. Also, look around you. You should, if possible, plant a tree that’s different from other trees nearby. It’s important to maintain diversity of species to help protect them from diseases and pests.

Buy your tree

Visit tree nurseries and garden centers to find the tree you want. Plant variety and quality varies a lot from place to place. The most common type of nursery-raised tree is offered as “balled and burlap.” It’s usually the easiest kind of tree to plant. Unless you have a really big car, be sure they deliver.

Plant your tree

You can plant until the first freeze, generally speaking. So you have some time, but not much. Maybe make it an event with family and friends. Dig a hole the same depth as the root ball, but way wider. The diameter of the hole should be at least twice that of the root ball. (A major mistake people make is digging the hole too deep. That can cause all kinds of problems for the roots.) Apply about three inches of organic mulch (shredded pine or softwood bark) to the base of the tree to keep moisture in and to protect the young root system. Don’t let the mulch contact the trunk of the tree — it can cause rot. Mulch is available at garden and home-center stores in large bags for a modest price. You can find mulching advice here and here.

mulch diagram
Illustrations courtesy of The Morton Arboretum

Maintain your tree

Most important, water it. Water it deeply. Let the hose run for several minutes so the water soaks in, then move the hose around the base and water it some more. Even better, invest in a “tree bag,” a plastic enclosure that you place around the base of the tree that slowly leaks gallons of water into the tree’s root system. Remember that the roots are growing until the ground freezes solid, so do your part to help them grow. As your tree gets bigger, you’ll need to do some pruning to help it keep a good shape and to rid the tree of dead branches, etc.

If this all seems too daunting, there are plenty of arborists in the Chicago area who’ll do the job for you. Check out online rating services to find one that suits you.

Have the city of Chicago plant a parkway tree for you

In Chicago, the service is free. Call 311 or use the city’s 311 app to apply if you don’t currently have a tree in front of your house. The city will inspect the property to be sure they can plant there, and then they’ll put you on the waiting list. Currently, the wait is well into 2020. However, you can plant a tree there yourself if you don’t want to wait, but you must get a permit, and you have to pick a tree on the officially approved list of species.

In the suburbs, contact your municipality to see if they’ll plant a parkway tree for you.

Maintain the trees you already have

Chicago trees
Landscaping with plants rather than grass gives a parkway the feel of a garden. Linda Paul / WBEZ

In Chicago and most municipalities, technically the city owns your parkway and its trees. But it’s in front of your home, so who better than you to take care of it? If you enjoy the tree you see through your front window every day, how about helping keep it alive and healthy. Mulch it. Water it. Consider it a member of the “green family” of trees, shrubs, flowers and other rooted beings around your home.

While you’re at it, adopt your whole parkway

Your front yard ends at the sidewalk, technically. But why not take your gardening chops out to the curb? Maybe ditch that patch of parkway grass and replace it with a more tree-friendly landscape. This can include perennials, bulbs and naturalized wildflowers appropriate to our area.

Learn how to care for your adult trees and shrubs

Watch for signs of leaf drop, leaf yellowing and general malaise. Often, these conditions can be reversed with fertilizers and medicine. If you think your tree may be diseased, have an expert test it. If it has a prevalent disease, such as ash borer or Dutch elm disease, remove it quickly so it doesn’t infect neighboring trees. There are excellent classes on tree maintenance at the Chicago Botanic Garden and at The Morton Arboretum, as well as at local schools and universities.

Join, or form, a group of tree supporters and get your hands dirty

If our region is going to meet the goal of planting 22 million new trees in the next 30 years, a lot of concerned people will have to get involved.

Treekeepers is an organized region-wide organization, with extensive training classes and a broad work schedule. They’ve planted thousands of trees in public spaces, and you can join up. There’s Friends of the Forest Preserves, which is always looking for volunteers to help plant trees and clear the forests of invasive plants.

Compare your neighborhood’s tree cover with the region

The seven-county Chicago region has a “canopy,” or vegetative cover, of about 18%. The city of Chicago tells us its canopy is a little less, about 17%. That number refers to the percentage of all available land in a particular sector that’s covered with trees and shrubs. The rest is buildings, industry, transportation corridors, parking lots and the like. The Chicago Regional Tree Initiative maintains an interactive map that shows how much canopy every suburb and every Chicago neighborhood has, and suggests where there’s potential plantable space. If the effort to plant 22 million trees by 2050 succeeds, our region would be back to about 22% tree cover, according to Lydia Scott, director of the tree initiative.

The magic of trees

If, by now, you’re wondering whether all this tree-planting stuff is worth the bother, consider the magic of trees.

They filter the air, replacing carbon dioxide with life-giving oxygen. They’re a bulwark against flooding. They clean our water and store carbon in their trunks and branches. They provide shade and cool our houses, lowering air-conditioning costs. And if that’s not enough, we’re now starting to document that they provide psychological comfort too.

In Japan, doctors sometimes give their patients a social prescription for shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing — the act of spending slow, sensual time in a forest — minus electronic devices.

chicago trees
The restorative power of nature can be felt under a tree canopy. Ken Davis / WBEZ

By some estimates, we now spend 90% of our time indoors. Under artificial light, with mechanically processed air. In some cases, not even near a window. If we experience nature, it’s by witnessing it on a screen.

We’re designed to be connected to the natural world, to “listen to the wind and taste the air,” says Dr. Qing Li, president of the Society of Forest Medicine in Japan and author of Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing.

He tells the Guardian that time spent under a canopy of trees is a critical factor in the fight against diseases of the mind and body. Some studies suggest that forest bathing has the capacity to lower blood pressure, boost the immune system and fight off illness in a number of other ways too.

So not only may trees be among the most effective tools we have in warding off climate change, they may also help keep us sane in a period of great anxiety over the sustainability of the planet.

Ken Davis and Linda Paul are longtime contributors and former staff members of WBEZ.