While we’ve all been hunkering down, Trees For Houston has just wrapped its latest planting season, and that means a boon for our city’s nature lovers. Though COVID-19 did put a dent on the number of trees that the nonprofit could plant this year—typically, volunteers plant 20,000-plus trees annually from October to April, but they were able to get just 13,062 trees in the ground before the pandemic thwarted such valiant efforts—the fact that thousands more trees have taken root is very good news for the health of our community.
“The need for greenery in urban space is the need for more things that will ameliorate health issues, quality of life issues, and nature in the urban area,” says Barry Ward, Trees For Houston’s executive director. “Those things aren't going away, and in times like this, it’s easier to point out how we need more places to walk, more shade, and more grass, not less.”
The benefits of trees are manifold. They reduce air pollution and storm water runoff, minimize noise and light pollution, slow erosion, provide food and habitat for the wildlife in the community, and add to the walkability of our city. “For the last 100 years, when engineers designed city streets, trees were an afterthought most of the time," Ward says.
And though we're seeing a push to become a greener city, Trees for Houston has long been an advocate of such an approach. It first planted live oaks downtown in the early ‘80s. Its projects today range from installing street trees in underserved communities, putting in a $50 tree in somebody’s front yard, and planning seven-figure projects that require years of fundraising and growing (thankfully, the nonprofit has a few area tree farms, where it raises native species). “We’re all over the map—all those projects have their own value and impact,” Ward says.
That impact? Trees for Houston has now planted half a million trees. This year’s plantings included myriad local elementary schools, parks and greenspaces, the Port of Houston, Bridge City, and more locations around the city. But, Ward says, we need a million more trees planted, and soon. If we want to help address our flooding problems anytime soon—both trees and greenspace will likely play a vital role in our region's future approach to mitigation— we'll need to grow from planting to tens of thousands of trees per year to hundreds of thousands trees per year. “When life gets back to normal, all the challenges we had before will still be there. The good news about trees—climate change and activism have been highly politicized—but trees are just a very smart cost effective way of addressing many quality of life issues within the city, and we can’t afford to not plant them anymore.”
And though volunteer plantings are currently on hold (due to COVID-19), Trees for Houston is focusing on neighborhood giveaways around the city—folks can get a 5-gallon tree, between 3 and 6 feet tall, to plant in their yard for free (they’d usually cost you about $300 at a nursery). “In the horticulturalist trade, they’re called wimps. But they grow very fast. They’re very survivable. And any reasonably healthy person could plant one in 15 minutes.”
And in five years time, that little wimp will be the same size as any 10-foot tree somebody bought at a nursery for $800. By then, Trees for Houston will likely have an established farm and visitor’s center on 34th Street (planned to open in the next two to 2.5 years), where anyone who visits can get a free tree.