Urban Treescapes

Washington Ave. in Schenctady. Image from snowmenatthegates.com
Urban treescapes
Mature trees with large dead branches and a bit of decay before removal.
Photo by Clarence “Rennie” Fountain.

“He who plants a tree plants a hope,” wrote Lucy Larcom in the very first line of her poem, Plant a Tree. The poem then blossoms into an extended metaphor of joy, peace, youth and love, each in its own turn nearly synonymous with the planting of a tree. Plant a tree.

But wait! Not just any tree, anywhere, in any season. There is more to it than that. Arborist (and Honest Weight member) Clarence “Rennie” Fountain explains that many U.S. cities have experienced arboreal neglect in recent decades, resulting in a jeopardized urban canopy and several other uniquely urban complications.

Municipalities in our area are addressing the issue, each in its own way. Schenectady adopted a Tree Master Plan in March of 2003 and it is available on the city’s website. The plan includes a comprehensive assessment of the tree situation and notes that the city position of Municipal Forester is vacant, and the urban canopy is even less than average compared to other cities. The city’s code is outdated and city crews are short-staffed. Schenectady, striving to accomplish an effective program, but unable to take on this monumental task in the current fiscal situation, is moving forward every year with help from ReTree Schenectady.

Fountain, a volunteer with ReTree Schenectady, is a true educator with plenty of facts, figures, and good advice on hand. Founded in 1991, ReTree Schenectady is a non-profit organization dedicated to the planting, care, and conservation of current and future generations of trees in the City of Schenectady. Volunteers plant and care for trees in a skillful and informed fashion, as they involve homeowners and residents in the project. ReTree Schenectady offers a wealth of information on their website for anyone who cares to learn about the planting and care of trees. Education is paramount.

Beyond consideration of planting zones and types of soil, the urban environment presents a special set of requirements for getting along with our trees and reaping the highest benefit. We have to consider the height of the tree and the potential interference with overhead wires, as well as possible effects of the roots on the sidewalks and buried pipes. As the tree grows, we need to prune and shape it so it will be healthy and keep our sidewalks and roads walkable and clear. ReTree Schenectady includes lists of appropriate trees for every situation on its website.

Another consideration, the importance of species diversity, has been overlooked in the past. Often municipalities would line their streets with a single species for aesthetic reasons. This practice is evident in street naming. What city doesn’t have a Maple Street or an Elm Street? According to Fountain, problems become apparent when trees of the same species start failing as a group, as trees with similarly advanced age can become vulnerable to pests and disease at the same time, changing a shady lane to a treeless street in short order.

image from giacalonephotos.com

The emerald ash bore travels easily and will devastate the entire population of ash trees in any area. The Asian Long-horned beetle is another pest which has not arrived in our area yet. However, it can move when firewood is transported, and when it arrives, it attacks several varieties of trees. It is better to plant and care for diverse species on every city block so that the loss of one tree does not become the harbinger of disaster for all. The International Society of Arboriculture recommends planting no more than 5 percent of any one species.

As our trees mature, we may think they are perfectly healthy and self-sufficient. Eventually, however, they reach the state of senescence. Decline has begun. From this point, a cost vs. benefit analysis is essential in order to decide how long to save the tree and when to replace it. Ideally, a long term comprehensive program will include replacement and removal.

There are two opportunities to learn about planning for, planting and caring for trees this spring, both of which are free and open to the public. Rennie Fountain will be leading a workshop in Schenectady on March 18 (unfortunately, the workshop is being held the day before the publication of this edition of the Co-op Voice, though the rain date is March 19) sponsored by Retree Schenectady and ECOS (Environmental Clearinghouse Of Schenectady). Those wishing to participate should meet at the corner of Union and Erie Boulevard in Schenectady at 10:00 AM. He will also offer a class on “Tree Care: Planting, Pruning, and Beyond,” at the Honest Weight Food Co-op, March 26 from 1:00 to 2:30 PM, in the teaching kitchen.

For more information:



Karla Guererri has been a Co-op Member-Owner for several years. She works in the field of education and lives in Troy.