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The Avid Gardener: How Trees Benefit Communities

by and on March 11, 2020 4:30 AM

“This is not a world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans here just arrived.” — Richard Powers, “The Overstory”

A popular children’s book called “The Giving Tree” tells the story of a poignant but one-sided relationship between a young boy and his BFF, an apple tree. The boy takes advantage of the tree — climbs it, eats its apples and sleeps in its shade. However, as the boy ages and he revisits the tree, he demands more and more (money for her apples, a house from her branches, a boat from her trunk). In the final scene she has been reduced to a stump — just what the now-old man needs to sit down and get a bit of rest. It could be construed as a happy ending, or not.

For some reason it was always difficult for me to read this story aloud to middle school students. It could be because to me it’s a sad story of extreme self-sacrifice with little gratitude in return, but on another level it could be because the tree was gradually being destroyed by the very person she loved best in all the world.

The book raises questions about why we need trees and what their benefits are to those of us living in urban as well as rural communities.

It wasn’t until I took the Tree Tenders course offered by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society that I began to realize the desirability as well as necessity of having trees, not just in forests, but everywhere.

An introduction to the course describes some amazing qualities of trees: they run totally on solar energy, turn water and carbon dioxide into building material, can split rocks, take carbon dioxide waste and return oxygen, can tell time and have plumbing systems that can raise water 100 times as efficiently as the best suction pump made. They can pour hundreds of gallons of water into the air in a day’s time, and protect themselves with bark against insects, disease and fire, all without moving. Very impressive.

All of this aside, there are practical benefits to having trees planted in yards or along community streets, as researched by institutions like the USDA Forest Service, International Society of Arboriculture, the Arbor Day Foundation and numerous universities.

Some of these include removing large quantities of pollution from the air, saving energy and reducing cooling costs, increasing the value of homes, improving state of mind by encouraging serenity and relaxation, helping reduce violence, increasing pride in local communities, helping remediate climate change and protecting water quality.

The PHS Tree Tenders program is a respected volunteer urban tree-care program that offers extensive training in tree planting and care. Since 1993, it has trained more than 4,000 volunteers who have planted an estimated 30,000 street trees in Philadelphia and surrounding municipalities. The extensive training, which covers tree biology, identification, planting, maintenance and community engagement is offered online through Penn State Extension.

In short, it provides knowledge, guidelines and organizational frameworks to help encourage community members to come together in order to learn about and plant street trees.

This relates practically through such groups as the Philipsburg Borough Shade Tree Commission. The commission was revived in about 2012 in an effort to plant rather than continue to just remove aging trees in the borough. Darlene Lewis, its chairwoman, has worked with its six other members to make Philipsburg a “greener and more attractive place to live.” In eight years the town has approximately 50 new trees planted by the borough crew in different locales.

The gift tree program has helped in that regard as well. Anyone can purchase a tree to be planted in honor or memory of a friend or loved one by calling the municipal building. During the 2019 Arbor Day celebration at the Simler House, the commission was presented with the 4th Tree City USA award and the 1st Tree City USA Growth award.

The commission works to apply for appropriate grants as well as to request funding from multiple sources, in addition to having a borough budget. The funds are used to complete projects for areas that could use additional maintenance or plantings.

The members canvas the town from season to season checking up on the town’s tree inventory - both aged and newly planted trees - and perform light pruning when it’s appropriate. They are also working with Penn State Extension and other local resources to develop a five year plan.

This year the group will take part in the 200th anniversary celebration of The Old Mud Church and its Founder’s Oak.

The Shade Tree Commission’s goal is simple: to have fellow town members see that the most tolerant and properly sized species of tree, thoughtfully planted and maintained, can bring years of enjoyment and benefit to themselves, their properties, the community of Philipsburg and beyond.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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