WILMINGTON –– Since the beginning of 2020, the city and multiple agencies have planted more than 3,000 trees throughout Wilmington. It’s an impressive feat for a city whose canopy has been largely stripped by rapid development and endured a record-breaking hurricane that drowned roots for weeks.
Of those thousands of newly planted evergreens, Molly Murphy got an oak. The city removed a few dead trees in front of her Princess Place home a year or so ago, then planted the fresh sapling. When it quickly started to decay, a water bag was placed at its base.
It was too late.
New oaks appeared in Murphy’s neighborhood about two months ago. Within days the baby tree in her frontyard was leafless. Her neighbor’s tree still looked healthy, she thought.
“I was just thinking, ‘Why is her tree still alive, mine isn’t?’” Murphy said. “But now her tree’s dead also.”
Murphy and her neighbor aren’t alone. Evan Folds, who has an eye for these sorts of failings, said, “They’re all over if you look for them.” The elected supervisor of the New Hanover Soil and Water Conservation District often pulls over while driving through the city to snap photos of the most “ridiculous” tree sightings: one snapped in half, missing its top, on South 10th Street; another grown to the point where it is split into a “V” shape, dodging power lines, along 5th Avenue; other slender trees with flimsy branches barely hanging.
“It looks like Edward Scissorhands,” Folds said.
Tree experts in the city can pinpoint what may be wrong: Young trees need an extra push at the start of their lives, especially in an urban environment such as Wilmington, and sometimes suffer from “transplant shock.” As newly planted babies, the trees have yet to establish their roots and need sufficient water between rainfall events. Oftentimes they require stakes or, better, rootball bracing to support them.
“Trees are quite unstable for the first growing season,” Wilmington Tree Commission Chair Dr. James Gregory said, “maybe even through the second growing season, until a lot of new roots grow outward from that root ball into the surrounding soil and develop the stability that they need.”
When Gregory plants a tree, he said he regularly waters it through at least the second growing season to ensure it can sustain itself.
Questionable trees are easily spotted on private or commercial properties, such as The Pointe at Barclay parking lot. The city requires as part of its code that property owners maintain any trees in its landscaping in perpetuity.
Dr. Gregory suspects some of those property owners don’t want to pay to replace decaying trees, despite the hazards they present to passersby.
Connie Parker, chair of the Alliance for Cape Fear Trees, said not all trees that appear dead are. Some trees that previously concerned her along Randall Parkway are just now beginning to bud, she said, but that doesn’t mean all will survive to maturity.
“Unless we get rain or unless they get water,” Parker said, “they’ve got to have some help.”
Sometimes trees are slow to sprout if there is little rain, she said. Ones planted in the spring struggle more. Indigenous species should be planted during the dormant season – when trees are resting – from mid-October to late March, according to Lloyd Singleton, executive director of New Hanover County Extension at the Arboretum. If planted as late as April or May, the tree is placed under more stress, requiring even more water for stabilizing root growth.
That’s when the trees in Murphy’s Princess Place neighborhood were planted a few years ago.
Then there are issues like planting depth, Singleton added. The part of the tree where the trunk meets the roots should always be visible above the ground, he explained, and mulch should never sit against the bark as to not prevent oxygen or withhold moisture from the roots.
“Those things can really just be additional stress on the tree that it doesn’t need because it’s already in a stressful environment,” Singleton said.
Overall, planting trees in urban areas is tricky. Problems range from too much sun to too many power lines. Especially in historic areas, saplings are competing with the roots of decade-old trees for space.
“Streets are not a natural habitat,” Parker said. “You can’t just take a tree out of a forest and pluck it right next to a street, and hope that it’s going to do well because it’s not a natural place for them to be.”
Plus, Wilmington’s soil lacks organic matter, according to Folds, which is necessary to hold the moisture needed for plant growth. Folds suspects any tree will die if the quality of soil is not considered, and that’s why trees along the Randall Parkway median are frequently replaced.
A city spokesperson confirmed poor soil conditions and lacking irrigation pose obstacles for the tree plantings along the median.
“Once they’re put in the ground, they’re gonna die,” Folds said. “We’re wasting money out there.”
In the past the city has replaced trees due to construction or damage from hurricanes. Workers plan to sub live oaks for any trees that come down between Independence Boulevard and Kerr Avenue. Gregory said a live oak is probably the “hardiest” native tree species in the region.
In a statement, the City of Wilmington’s spokesperson said the city does take steps to ensure newly planted trees survive, which includes being selective about which types of trees go where.
In addition to employing one arborist, one tree crew supervisor, three crew leaders, and six tree trimmers, the City of Wilmington pays Good Earth Associates Inc. to scatter new trees throughout the city. The contractor guarantees its plantings will survive for at least 18 months, or else they will replace them.
Plus, the City of Wilmington is preparing to launch its search for a consultant to pen an urban forestry master plan. It would strategically guide the city’s next moves for expanding the tree canopy.
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