Ask any child to draw a city and common images emerge: tall buildings, roads and cars, pavement. However, throughout the West, these crayon-rendered social critiques may soon reflect an important shift. From short, bushy, and flower-laden to towering, leafy, and crawling with critters, trees are making a comeback. And we have concerned citizens and dedicated gardeners to thank.
The return of trees is well under way in Washington County, Oregon, where Tree for All has united local agencies like the Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District, non-profit organizations, and private citizens to exceed what was once considered an audacious goal. Led by Clean Water Services, the Tree for All initiative started 10 years ago with a goal of planting two million native trees and shrubs throughout Washington County. However, in that decade, farmers, foresters, natural areas managers, and everyday people have planted nearly four million new plants. Empowered by that success, the partners challenged local volunteers to step it up in 2015, and issued a challenge of planting one million plants in just one year.
The Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District worked hard this year to increase the miles of streams on farmland covered by shady tree canopies, and the Tree for All partners matched that effort. Last March, local partner Friends of Trees recruited and trained volunteers for planting events, on what were often muddy, drippy Saturday morning labors of love. Many of those volunteers were home gardeners concerned with the appearance and health of areas beyond their own backyards.
Across the country, the concept of “naturescaping” is taking off as farmers, gardeners, and naturalists alike begin to understand the effect that human activity has on nature. A glance around most communities shows buildings and paved surfaces cutting through areas that once supported native plants and wildlife. Agriculture and forestry practices follow a similar pattern. Habitat fragmentation is but one of many effects human activity—both commercial and individual—has on the landscape. Programs like Portland’s Backyard Habitat Certification Program challenge and support gardeners to rededicate a portion of their home gardens to natural conditions.
A natural evolution occurs as gardeners become increasingly interested in mimicking natural habitat at home. Over time, these small actions in yards and gardens add up to a big increase in food and shelter for wildlife. Likewise, benefits of the Tree for All program are growing along with the new plant communities, becoming more complex and further reaching over time. The work also bolsters local economies with green jobs. While the trees themselves increase the beauty of our towns and parks, they help manage rainwater that drains from streets and buildings too. They provide healthier living space for plants, insects, fish, wildlife, and ultimately humans.
In Washington County, local gardeners turned out to help plant roughly 10 percent of the 1,327,698 trees and native plants going into the ground between November 2014 and April 2015. Over the course of those six months, planting events helped rehabilitate 101 streamside miles in public spaces. Nearly 6,632 volunteers dug into this public gardening effort, with experience ranging from that of Master Gardeners and backyard habitat aficionados to new gardeners. Even those who believed themselves lacking a green thumb joined in the effort, spreading knowledge not only of the importance of local native plant and wildlife systems, but of gardening itself.
As this movement grows across the western United States, keep an eye on those early childhood ideas and drawings about what makes a city. You might just find more trees and gardens popping up!