Toronto's Trees: your guide to caring for urban green spaces

Toronto Urban Forestry and a heritage arborist share tips that anyone can use to support trees that are stressed this summer from drought, pollution and crowding.

See trees with fresh eyes and learn ways to help them thrive

Bike lanes in High Park have large overhead canopies. High traffic places are given priority pruning.

Toronto's trees are feeling the heat this summer, and tree experts are calling for everyone to keep an eye out for them.

Jospeh Gillingham is a heritage arborist and passionate about growing a green city. (Aiden McRae/CBC)

"Everyone should be a kind of citizen arborist," says Joseph Gillingham, owner of Heritage Tree Care. 

Toronto is home to an estimated 10.2 million trees, according to Urban Forestry, which maintains the city's forests and trees on public land.

Trees beautify the growing cityscape with their foliage and are "hugely important to the infrastructure of the city," says Matthew Cutler, the manager for Toronto's Parks and Recreation. 

Culter says the city's canopy offers "strong health and economic benefits"

"Trees counter climate change, save energy, prevent floods and provide us with protection.

Joseph Gillingham's Heritage Tree Care crew can be found dangling from branches in harnesses, while wielding chainsaws. (Joseph Gillingham)
Given those benefits, Cutler says Urban Forestry has updated its strategy from "reactive to proactive."

Arborists spend a lot of time pruning dead limbs from trees in parks and streets, while planting new trees with the goal to increase the canopy from "28 to 40 per cent" by year 2022, Cutler says. 

However, this summer residential trees have struggled to get enough water and leaves are visibly dry. Drought conditions hit trees surrounded by concrete that have little soil to absorb water or anchor their roots.

The trees on sidewalks and close to roadways are most vulnerable to pollution from "people and cars," Cutler says. Even people who chain bikes to trees cause stress on trunks.

Urban Forestry recommends watering trees instead of lawns. Meanwhile, Cutler says city arborists are testing structural soil technology in downtown parks. Cutler says the tools will reduce soil compaction and free up space for roots to spread freely.

Disease also strikes trees city-wide, such as ash and elm. Cutler says emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle, will likely kill off 80 per cent of Toronto's ash trees.

Arborists replace diseased trees with ones that boost diversity and are more resilient to weather, disease and pollution. 

Meanwhile, Joseph Gillingham says his crew is busy this summer visiting private properties after a wet spring led to "heavy canopies" and "lots of breakages."

Dead limbs on an oak tree in High Park are a common sight on mature trees. Pruning the deadwood lifts weight from the rest of the tree. (Aiden McRae/CBC)

His team untangles dead limbs from telephone wires, makes space for crowded trees and removes hazardous branches near playgrounds, fences, driveways, entrances and sidewalks. 

His crew specializes in pruning heritage trees, which lifts weigh from the rest of the tree by opening the canopy.

Tree care for everyone

When it comes to monitoring tree health across the city, Cutler says people should "share responsibility" and use "gut instinct" when a tree appears to be struggling. Anyone can report tree issues by phoning 311.

Anyone who spots a space for a new tree near their home on public land can check out the Get a Free Tree Program through Urban Forestry.

Gillingham also shares some signs anyone can monitor.

What to look for:

  • First, check for dead branches, Gillingham says.  
  • Watch for structural cracks, rotten growth and mushrooms. All are signs of decay.
  • Check if the tree is leaning more to one side.
  • Does the foliage have strange colours, "dots, holes, blemishes on the leaves?" Those are signs of disease.
  • Look for branches near a roof that can damage the eaves troughs and invite raccoons into the roof. 

Basic pruning for everyone

Gillingham is happy to see people trying their hand at pruning their own fruit trees, which anyone can do using online resources.

You can also check for low, dead branches on spruce and pine trees that can be a risk for young kids playing outside, he says.

Prune a small branch "close to the tree, do not leave a stub," he says.

This is one of the recycled wood creations from Gillingham's furniture-making store. (Joseph Gillingham)

Even if a tree dies, you can give it a second life

In cases where an entire dead tree must comes down, there are creative ways to recycle the wood.

Gillingham also runs a business where he transforms wood into slab tables and rustic furniture.