Green side up: planting Vancouver's canopy, one tree at a time

Teams of Park Board planting crews have just wrapped up a busy six months of planting thousands of park and street trees in a race to increase the amount of tree cover the city has by 2020.

Park Board crews spend 6 months every year planting thousands of trees along streets, in parks

Michael Robinson, left, and Tim Witheridge with the Vancouver Park Board have planted thousands of trees to help increase the city's urban forest. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

Dig a hole. Drop in a tree. Fill with dirt. Water and repeat.

That's been the past seven months of effort for Vancouver Park Board workers Michael Robinson and Tim Witheridge.

The pair are one of several crews whose job it is to plant trees along streets and in parks to help increase their number across the city.

These root balls belong to pine trees the Park Board will plant in parks in the city. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

"Thousands...thousands," said Robinson, an apprentice arborist with the Park Board, when asked how many he has planted between October 2017 and April 2018.

"It's not easy. You've got to have a strong back."

The City of Vancouver is aiming to plant 150,000 new trees across Vancouver in a 10-year span, from 2010 to 2020, as part of its Urban Forest Strategy.

This monkey puzzle tree, seen here laying on its side at the Vancouver Park Board work yard is one of thousands of trees being planted across the city. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

A main goal is to increase the city's canopy — ground area covered by tree leaves as seen from the air — from 18 per cent to 22 per cent.

Vancouver had 22-per-cent canopy cover in in 1995, but a combination of development, pests and even property owners bent on improving their views by cutting down mature trees, caused that figure to decline.

'There are 500 different kinds of trees growing along our streets all told and we continue to add to that as well,' says Vancouver Park Board forester Bill Stephen. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

According to foresters like the Park Board's Bill Stephen, urban forests clean the air, slow climate change, ease strong winds, conserve rainwater, provide wildlife habitat and contribute to a sense of wellbeing for city residents.

"There are a lot of amenities that trees can provide in a city... in my mind, making Vancouver the beautiful place that it is," he said.

Michael Robinson, left, and Tim Witherridge arrive at a tree planting site. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

Stephen says that by the end of 2017, more than 102,000 trees have been planted — so a final push of close to 50,000 will be needed before 2020.

"We started off a little bit more slowly because we weren't accustomed to planting as many trees as that," he said. "But we're definitely in full swing now."

Robinson and Witheridge use a lift on their trailer to get trees for planting on and off. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

Trees are planted during the fall and winter when most are not actively growing because they have a better chance to settle in before the spring and summer.

For larger trees, Robinson and Witheridge try to plant between eight and 10 each shift, but that can be slowed by bad weather or even hard soil, which is hard to dig through.

Each tree planted in this way costs the park board an average of $500.

Digging holes for the trees can be tough work depending on what the soil is like. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

Robinson says all the effort is worth it.

"You're planting trees, you're giving back to the community and it's sort of spreading the beauty of Vancouver when you see the cherry blossoms that come out ... you contributed to something special."

Robinson and Wetheridge measure their hole to make sure it is deep enough to fit the root ball of the Japanese dogwood they are planting. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

The planters also face obstacles, such as soil space where pipes and utility lines need to run; enough water to get established, especially as summers in Vancouver become drier due to climate change; and even residents who fear the new trees will mean more work for them.

Robinson and Witheridge wrestle the dogwood, which will grow to up to 12 metres high, into place. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

Robinson says the tree is more important than the extra leaf raking they require.

"The oxygen that the tree gives you and the beauty of having a tree in front of your house far outweighs your week of having to rake leaves," he said.

Watch Michael Robinson explain the importance of water for newly planted trees and how residents can help:

Vancouver Park Board apprentice arborist Michael Robinson explains importance of helping to water public trees in Vancouver. 0:48

Stephen says up to 1,500 street or park trees either die or need to be removed each year either due to disease, age or some other problem. But they are being replaced.

"We're adding to the inventory as we go," he said.

Michael Robinson with the Vancouver Park Board puts the finishing touches on the planting of a Japanese dogwood in a city park in South Vancouver. (Chad Pawson/CBC)