PORTLAND — When you’re known as “the Forest City” in “the Pine Tree State,” taking care of trees is a big job.
And although it might be hard to believe, spring arrives in just three weeks – so the city is preparing for another busy season of tree planting.
City Arborist Jeff Tarling and the Public Services Department’s six-person Forestry Division are already checking to see how the 19,262 city-owned trees have fared the winter.
Tarling is also talking to neighborhood groups, asking for suggestions about where new trees should be added this year in the city’s parks and open spaces and along 300 miles of streets.
The division will plant about 200 trees in May and June, he said, funded by a mix of city, state, federal and private funds. That’s roughly the same as the number planted last year.
Deciding which trees go where is a complex process.
It involves aerial photography and on-the-ground evaluations to determine how a sapling might be affected by factors including the size of a potential site, nearby utility lines, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, water drainage and the salt used to de-ice sidewalks.
Tarling also has to consider where plantings are most needed, such as tree-poor sections of the peninsula, and streets where trees have died or had to be removed. Individual residents request trees, and developers pay for the city to install trees next to new buildings.
The Bayside and Parkside neighborhoods are often high-demand locations, Tarling said. More suburban parts of the city, such as Stroudwater, require fewer plantings.
“But we get requests from everywhere,” he said. “People have an emotional attachment to trees. … Sometimes, especially for people in town, that little tree on the sidewalk is their only green space.”
At the same time, Tarling is talking with nurseries to find out the quantity and types of trees available. He looks for trees whose size, shape and growth needs match the sites.
“We have to figure out which trees are going to be tough enough. We also have to step back and think about what a tree is going to look like not just today, but someday in the future,” he said.
“There’s a lot of strategy about where we want (trees) to go. By the end of April, we have to be pretty much locked in.”
The short height of hedge maples and and tree lilacs make them well-suited for some city streets. The city has been trying dwarf sugar maples for the same reason. Green pillar oaks have a column-like shape that led Tarling to plant several in Boothby Square on Fore Street.
Portland’s public spaces boast dozens of tree varieties. Some are unusual, such as tupelo, more often found in the deep South. The city also has about 100 American elms, a species that was nearly wiped out locally by disease in the 1960s.
The city is home to a rare, 80-foot-tall dawn redwood, near Sacred Heart Church on Mellen Street, Tarling said. And one of the city’s oldest trees, a white oak more than 250 years old, stands in Deering Oaks Park.
Once this year’s plantings are in the ground, the work won’t stop, Tarling said.
In the summer, the young trees have to be carefully watered and cared for in order to survive. (About 90 percent of them do, he said.) In the fall, trees have to be fertilized, pruned, removed, braced and prepared for the next winter.
Which, after all, is less than 300 days away.
Portland City Arborist Jeff Tarling inspects a young, but ailing, pin oak tree in Deering Oaks Park that may have to be removed as the the city prepares to restock its 19,000-tree urban forest.