Greening SoBo Streets, One Tree at a Time

Local volunteers Joanna Pi-Sunyer (left) and Tom Mackay get a new street tree in the ground near Thomas Johnson Elementary/Middle School. Photo by Mary Braman.

This story originally appeared in Issue #4 of the Peninsula Post newspaper, published December 4, 2021.

The South Baltimore peninsula has an abundance of street trees, giving our urban lives some welcomed shade, color, and natural calm. This canopy also yields health benefits, keeping local temperatures a bit cooler in summer.

Maintaining all this green is a constant work in progress. Trees succumb to the challenges of a bustling city environment, and new trees don’t spring up from empty tree pits on their own. That requires planning, removing stumps, trucking in saplings, digging, and ongoing care.

The peninsula would be a more barren place if not for the work of a handful of residents, backed by a supportive city program dedicated to boosting Baltimore’s tree canopy. These individual volunteers work in their neighborhoods on a months-long annual cycle to help keep local streets green, one tree at a time.

Joanna Pi-Sunyer’s tree-planting focus for over 15 years has been the neighborhoods between Federal Hill and Riverside parks, where she has coordinated the planting of some 200 trees. This fall, Tom Mackay spearheaded the first community tree-planting effort in his South Baltimore neighborhood. And, long-time peninsula resident Ellen Worthing has a small supply of potted trees in her backyard, ready to fill empty tree pits around Locust Point.

Much of the planning, neighborhood outreach, and muscle needed to get street trees into the ground around SoBo comes from these dedicated volunteers.

The work of these “tree stewards” is supported by Tree Baltimore, a collaboration between city departments and various groups led by the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks. It’s the backbone of citywide efforts to increase urban tree canopy, supplying free trees, expert advice, training, and maintenance services.

South Baltimore Neighborhood Association volunteers planted trees last October in the pocket park at S. Charles and E. Wells streets. Photo by Steve Cole.

(Tree Baltimore has an online inventory of street trees and available pits all over the city. Want to see the trees on your street? Check out the Baltimore Street Tree Inventory and zoom right into your block.)

Joanna’s long-running effort started in 2004 and has involved different collaborators  over the years. She keeps track of the multistep annual process on a spreadsheet that lists where and when trees were planted and possible locations for new ones.

Staying aware of conditions on the street is Joanna’s key first step. “I keep my eyes open for dead trees and stumps and open pits,” Joanna says. “When I find them, I knock on the doors of people who live nearby and ask if they want a new tree or have already put in a request for one. It’s not worth putting in a tree if there’s no one who’s going to take care of it or if they actively don’t want it.”

She checks with Tree Baltimore to see if a promising new tree location is already on their list for planting. If it’s not, she adds it to her spreadsheet and moves on to step two.

Joanna puts in an order with Tree Baltimore for free street trees about six months before planting: for a fall planting, the order goes in the previous spring; for a spring planting, the previous fall. She ordered eight trees for the fall planting this October; last fall, the order was double that.

Tom ordered 10 trees this summer for the first community planting sponsored by the South Baltimore Neighborhood Association. Two went into a pocket park at the southern end of S. Charles Street, and the rest were planted in open tree pits, mainly along Ostend Street. Tom placed his first order of trees in 2018: three Black Gum trees that he and his wife, Megan Spindler, planted on their block of Light Street.

The tree-planting bug bit Ellen at about the same time. In 2017 she led an effort supported by the Locust Point Civic Association to plant fruit trees along the slope of the manmade berm facing the railyard at the southern end of Latrobe Park and Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School. Those trees came from the Baltimore Orchard Project. Ellen went on to take the “Tree Keeper” training offered by Tree Baltimore, ordered more trees through that organization, planted them on the berm, and gradually shaped a shaded, quarter-mile-long trail that stretches along the top of it.

Ellen’s current focus in Locust Point is largely a solo effort. “I approach property owners who have tree pits that are empty. When someone needs a tree, I plant a tree for them. I’m working on two pits on Beason Street now,” she says.

Prepping a tree pit for a new tree can be a challenge. A stump may need to come out, which requires scheduling a city crew, hiring a private contractor, or finding volunteers to dig it out by hand. Joanna has received grants recently from South Baltimore Gateway Partnership through Federal Hill South Neighborhood Association to pay for some of this work. Compost, mulch, and watering bags also need to be purchased and tools rented before the new trees arrive.

Different types of trees are ordered, depending on the location of the tree pit. Some trees do well in sun, others don’t. Some grow very tall, so a tree pit with powerlines overhead is not a good fit.

And, sometimes the types of trees ordered are not the ones that arrive, due to a limited supply and unpredictable citywide demand. “Delivery day can be like Christmas,” Tom said when the city dropped off his trees in October. “You don’t always know exactly what you’re going to get.”

Tree stewards match up the trees they receive the best they can with the available tree pits. A call goes out for volunteers to pitch in with shovels, picks, and rakes on the scheduled planting day, and SoBo is on its way to becoming a bit greener – and healthier.

“Trees help filter the air. A good tree canopy helps lower the temperature of the environment. You can have a 15-degree difference between a green neighborhood in Baltimore and a barren neighborhood,” Joanna points out. “And there’s a lot of evidence about the importance of greener for our peace of mind. Even looking at a tree is soothing to our souls, makes us feel calmer.”

If you’re interested in adding to SoBo’s tree canopy, Joanna suggests getting in touch with a local tree steward as a first step. Here’s how you can reach them:

Tom Mackay, SBNA:

Joanna Pi-Sunyer:

Ellen Worthing:

For advice on an ailing street tree, you can request a city inspection online through the 311 service. – Steve Cole

Tips: Helping Your Street Trees Thrive

  • During dry weather, keep young trees watered. Lack of water is the #1 killer of street trees.
  • Mulch your tree at least once a year with a wood-based mulch.
  • Don’t lean things against a tree or lock bikes to a tree. Trees are under a lot of stress already, and a cut in the bark only adds more.
  • Keep dogs off trees and tree pits. Their cumulative effect compacts the soil and adds a lot of harmful waste.
  • Don’t fence in your street tree. The water flowing across the sidewalk when it rains should be able to reach the tree.

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