Young trees face tall odds along city's busy streets

Planted to beautify, they are parched by drought, choked by concrete

July 22, 2002|By Jay Parsons | Jay Parsons,SUN STAFF

It wasn't so long ago that Baltimore tree service technician Marion J. Bedingfield planted dozens of shade-hungry crab apple and hawthorn trees on the median of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, as part of Mayor Martin O'Malley's zealous plan to green the city's gateways.

Many of those trees withered within two years because of drought conditions prevalent throughout the region since 1999.

So in May, Bedingfield returned to plant the more weather-sturdy sawtooth oak -- but in soil crusted with road debris and a watering area limited by asphalt curbs, many of the 100 oaks have browned and appear dead.

"My guys say, `We're watering dead trees out there,'" says a frustrated Bedingfield, a 27-year veteran at the city forestry division. "And I say, `Keep watering them.'"

Bedingfield says the oaks aren't dead, but like thousands of young roadside trees across the city, their struggle to adjust to urban life has been severely manacled by the region's drought.

City arborists say the Baltimore area hasn't received a good rainy season in three years, and meteorologists say heavy precipitation will not arrive until winter.

Forestry officials don't know how much the three-year water shortage has cost the city. But based on figures provided by the forestry division, the city has lost at least $125,000 in trees during the past three years -- much of which can be attributed to the drought.

The 100 oaks on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard cost about $125 each, the average price the city pays for a tree. The mass planting was the city's biggest tree project last spring -- and its biggest headache this summer.

"They are the worst, and unfortunately they were the largest plantings," Bedingfield said of the oaks. "It's a definite disappointment. An awful lot of planning went into that, and one thing we didn't plan on was a drought."

"I'm having a lot of bad luck, and yet they're being watered every five days," he said.

5 inches below normal

Precipitation in the Baltimore area is down 34 percent below average in the past year, National Weather Service meteorologist Christopher Strong said. Typically, the area receives about 22 inches of precipitation between January and July. This year, 17 inches fell, Strong said.

"This isn't a good time of year to recover from a drought," Strong said. "It's hard to get widespread precipitation through August, September and November. ... Everything is cyclical in weather. We're in a dry cycle right now, and that'll turn eventually, but it's been a long time."

A balancing act

And that puts Bedingfield and the 39-person city forestry division in a precarious position. There's O'Malley, who Bedingfield calls the "greenest mayor Baltimore's ever had," and who has approved expenditures on top of the division's $2.4 million budget to plant trees along the city's main routes.

And there's nature: If the drought continues and more trees die, the forestry division will be saddled not only with the costs of replacing those trees, but the substantial costs of removing dead trees and maintaining thousands of new plants every year.

"If the drought continues, the number of trees we'll have to water will keep growing," said Frank Rogers, street tree coordinator for Parks and People Foundation, a nonprofit group that is the city's leading private tree planter. "Each year the drought goes on, trees get more and more stressed. This is a very bad year, and if the weather doesn't change, we will see some problems."

The primary drought victims are young trees, decorating the medians of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, North Avenue, Northern Parkway and other major routes. Most are not Baltimore natives, and they struggle adjusting to more sunlight and less water.

"Young trees are like young kids," Bedingfield said. "They gobble up water like kids with candy. A big tree is smart enough to know, `OK, I haven't had much rain lately. I'm going to hold off.'"

After planting, trees require about three years of regular watering and tending before taking root permanently, Rogers said. The trees that survive the first three years are likely to thrive much longer.

But as the drought wears on, the older trees -- particularly maples in West Baltimore -- are beginning to show signs of weakness, Bedingfield said. Understaffed, the forestry division limits regular watering to trees planted in the past six months.

City workers have placed 10- to 20-gallon water bags on 600 trees, but the bags cannot cover an entire tree pit. The forestry division and private groups such as Parks and People planted about 6,400 trees in the past three years, and as more are added, a growing number of the city's 300,000 street trees lack water.

Along with Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, North Avenue has provided one of the more stubborn areas for tree growth, according to Bedingfield. Only 55 of the 80 trees planted there last spring are expected to survive, he said.

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