Trees for Durham’s schools

Feb. 08, 2014 @ 12:51 PM

At first I was skeptical. The idea that a small group of people could plant hundreds of new trees on the grounds of Durham’s 30 elementary schools seemed naïve at best, but that’s what we tasked ourselves with. 

I’m referring back to Trees Across Durham’s (TAD) early meetings where we set goals and objectives for our new organization.

We decided that we should invest a portion of the county’s tree-initiative money into planting new trees, but where?  While there are those in our community who assume that tree planting in urban areas is simply a matter of setting goals, I have firsthand experience of what goes into planting an urban tree,  what pitfalls lurk in the process and what the consequences are of taking shortcuts.   Given the limited time we had to seek permission and locate and prioritize sites, and wanting to make a big impact with a (relatively) small number of trees, we selected Durham’s elementary school campuses. 

From the outset we recognized the need that the Durham Public Schools (DPS) maintenance service and school facililty staff be intimately involved. Simply planting them where you want and hoping for the best is irresponsible and helps reinforce the notion that trees are inconvenient and burdensome.  However, I was a little dubious of how well received my bright ideas would be by a group of seasoned horticultural veterans. 

Imagine my surprise when I not only got a warm and professional reception from DPS Maintenance Services Grounds staff, but was also greeted with an attentive audience for my exhaustive two-hour workshop on tree selection, placement, planting and maintenance.  After the classroom sessions we went out on their grounds to demonstrate some concepts and technique and encountered some examples of trees that make our jobs difficult.  If trees are well selected and properly planted in good sites, maintenance is straightforward.  Absent any of those things and the bar is set higher.    

Over the course of the following weeks I became acquainted with DPS staff and came to appreciate the care and knowledge they demonstrated where it came to their respective areas of responsibility.  They knew where the children liked to run and play, how wide a space they needed to drive their mowers efficiently and where not to block access or visibility. Having them on board to guide the process, I have a lot of confidence that the TAD trees that we plant have at least a fighting chance to grow up and cool down those unshaded play structures and parking lots without blocking sight-lines, and frame unadorned entryway and courtyards while leaving cameras and security lights unobscured.

I also saw some remarkable trees tucked away on these campuses, like one of the largest lacebark elms and nicest hackberries I’d seen in Durham.  I also got to know some remarkable people, folks who have dedicated their professional careers towards keeping these landscapes neat and tidy and above all safe for the community and our littlest members.  They take their jobs seriously, and never once pointed out that my “big idea” had the potential to become their “big headache”.

The next and trickiest part is going to be getting the 300-plus trees installed before the weather takes a turn toward the hot.  If you have a kid enrolled, have an elementary school in your neighborhood, or sit on the PTA or (better yet) grounds committee, we are looking for folks to help out.  If you are not that handy with a shovel, the summer watering might be less glamorous, is going to be critical in getting these trees through their first year.  Any questions, comments, concerns or interest in helping can be directed to the City/County Sustainability office: or Durham Public Schools Maintenance Services Grounds Supervisor: