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Planting primer: The 411 on tree pits

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If you’ve ever walked by a sidewalk tree pit and wondered how you can get one yourself--or if you live near a treeless pit in need of planting--read on for five things you need to know about tree pits in the five boroughs:

1. How do I plant a tree? If you’re a property owner, you can request a free tree directly from the Parks Department or 311, or through your community board. Mayor Bloomberg’s Million TreesNYC/Plan NYC program has created a higher capacity for the Parks Department to fulfill requests for trees. 

If you decide to plant your own, you’ll first need to submit a free permit application to the Parks Department’s Central Forestry & Horticulture division.

If the sidewalk must be broken in order to create a tree pit, you have to also apply to the Department of Transportation for a permit, and you’ll just have to use an approved licensed contractor. 

According to the Parks Department, it only takes about a month between submitting an application and getting the final OK.

2. What types of trees thrive here? Everything from ginkgo bilobas to dawn redwoods and little leaf lindens thrive on our city blocks. Check out the Parks Department's site to refine your choice further via a chart that lists the tree’s fall color, how much space the tree needs to thrive and how tolerant it is to wind and salt.

3. What does dog pee do to your tree pit? Nothing good.

“When a dog pees in the tree bed, it not only gets very smelly, but it makes the soil acidic, thereby killing whatever you’ve planted,” says Josh Fleischmann, director of marketing of Blondie's Treehouse, Inc.,  an urban landscaping company in Chelsea. 

4. What can you do to keep dogs from peeing on your tree and your plantings? Install high tree guards to discourage dogs from choosing a particular pit as a potty.

“Install a prominent sign, but it may get stolen so have replacements on hand," says Fleischmann. 

“I feel the best way to go is polite, but firm --‘Urine kills flowers and damages trees. Please don’t let your dog pee here’,” he suggests.

“Consider hanging a [pooper-scooper] bag dispenser for owners who neglect to bring their own,”  he adds.

As far as the flowers planted in the pits, those are pretty much left to anyone who takes an interest in keeping the street looking pretty. So is the tree.

“The city will prune a tree if a branch falls into the street, but the actual maintenance of the tree pit is left up to either a caring individual, the company managing the building near it or a block improvement group,” says Fleischmann

As a last resort, you may consider creating a barrier around your tree.

“Some people install hard clear plastic or plexiglass just behind the metal tree guards,” he says. “Though this may diminish the aesthetics of the tree pit design, it will help keep the dogs out.”

5. Who cares for the pit once it's planted?

“The city will prune a tree if a branch falls into the street, but the actual maintenance of the tree pit is left up to either a caring individual, the company managing the building near it or a block improvement group,” says Fleischmann.

Some hire a pro like Fleischmann, whose company charges somewhere around $950 to maintain a tree pit and change the plantings four a year, but there are plenty of DIYers.

Through Million Trees NYC, you can "adopt" any tree you feel is neglected, since trees are considered public property. Visit the site, mention the tree you want to adopt and get ready for some quick training in the art of watering, weeding, mulching, pruning, keeping it litter free and building or installing a tree guard for it. 

You can keep everyone up to date on your tree via the Million Trees' website, and through Twitter and Facebook. Get ready to update your Status Update with news of your healthy, thriving tree and the tulips you just planted beneath it.

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