It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Tree Planting Project

It started in 1991, with one little tree on the planting strip in front of my house in Wallingford. The first one was almost free—the City Arborist’s office gave me both a coupon toward tree purchase and a required free permit. I brought home a Forest Pansy Redbud and it promptly died, probably from lack of water. Note: street trees need weekly water from spring forward to fall back, even if it rains. Its replacement committed suicide by girdling root. Tree number 3, a Kousa dogwood, didn't like the hot conditions on the west side of the street so I moved it to another location, and a quirky Quercis Ilex—Holly Oak—is now a mature happy camper.

Junior Tree Stewards (left to right, clockwise):    Eleanor, Sylvia and Eli

Junior Tree Stewards (left to right, clockwise):
Eleanor, Sylvia and Eli

The next year I heard about a merchant-organized tree planting on The Ave in the University District. A quick look around the concrete-and-asphalt-scape of the Queen Anne street where I worked back then prompted me to come up with a plan of my own. A group of business owners and worker bee me arranged to plant 20 Spring Snow crabapple trees that fall, 1992. Many of them are still there on West McGraw Street near what is now The Fountainhead Gallery.

Raising money for the project gained momentum over a few weeks. I learned that removing concrete is easier than I thought, and that it is important to plant with "Right Tree–Right Place" in mind. I also learned that some people have had a Bad Tree Day in their past and not only dislike trees, they dislike having other people plant them, anywhere. Good to know. Not everyone agrees with me that trees beautify almost any setting. I remind myself of that every time I set out to see if people want trees, happy when I find like-minded folks.

Soon after that, a client of mine asked me for a favor: her grown son had always wanted his Queen Anne street to be tree lined, but was now too ill to accomplish that himself: would I consider helping? In a heartbeat. We didn't quite fulfill her son' s dream--we got no further with a couple of no-tree guys than he had in the past--but we did plant quite a few trees, something that gave Daniel a great deal of joy before he died.

By then I was hooked. Someone at the City Arborist’s office would call me if they had surplus trees at the close of the yearly planting season. Gradually my own street's planting strip was becoming a veritable tree museum of diverse species.

Then I met my neighbor Chris. When I mentioned that I planted trees, she gave me an application to the Department of Neighborhoods Tree Fund. Chris was a member of the Wallingford Community Council and remembered that a potential volunteer had signed up at one of their events for tree planting. She checked the database to find the vaguely recalled potential volunteer: it was me. I resolved to widen the circle.

Meanwhile, another neighbor and I began taking baby steps to effect traffic calming on our street. The Seattle Transportation (now SDOT) first-step suggestion was: Plant street trees; a tree-lined street tends to narrow the visual corridor. After planting dozens of trees we again contacted SeaTran and told them traffic slowed only on the actual tree planting day. Eventually, in collaboration with King County Metro, traffic calming came to Thackeray Place NE.

The first DON planting was in 1997. 21 trees on a rainy Saturday morning. I had taken Seattle Volunteer Tree Steward training that summer and set my sights on two projects: trees on planting strips in Wallingford for people who wanted them (and who agreed to care for them and introduce new residents to them should the planters relocate), and creating stewardship opportunities for children. It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Tree Planting Project and Junior Tree Stewards were hatched that summer. Capes, watering cans, fun. They made great costumes for the next planting on Halloween, 1998.

By 1999 we graduated into the ambitious realm of Seattle City Light' s Urban Tree Replacement Program—UTRP—and 100 or so trees have been planted once or twice yearly ever since from I-5 to Aurora, 65th south to Lake Union. Those gorgeous Ginkgo trees that line the west side of 2nd Avenue NE above 40th are from that planting, and thrive due to good watering and in most cases, large tree pits (or completely gardened strips). The street trees adjacent to this street park are project trees; the Zelcovas are 17 years old from the first year.

This volunteer path of mine comes as a surprise to me—it's not a surprise that I am volunteering, but that this coastal California native has found a tree planting home in the Pacific Northwest. I asked a friend who has been collecting weird stuff for decades if being a bona fide collector was a conscious thought when he acquired his first kooky salt and pepper shaker set in the 70s. “Nope,” he replied. “It just happened. I realized I had a collection one day when I set them on my windowsill to admire them. And I realized they tickled something in my heart and the rest is history.”

It appears that planting trees tickles something in our hearts and it's contagious. Many thanks to the Block Captains for organizing plantings, and to all who have been watering and getting the word out about watering project trees this summer.

—Nancy Merrill is an artist, writer and founder of the It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Tree Planting Project.

Paul Dorpat’s review of Park-ing Day on Thackeray Place NE, September 18, 2009 on!

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Eco Art poster

To: The Car Guys at CarTalk Plaza, WBUR

October 15, 1990 (Read on the air—in this slightly edited version)

“Hello, you're back and so are we . . . this is NPR's CarTalk with Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers.”

“NPR has asked me to read . . . they don't usually do commercials, but they asked me to do this one:”

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“Yes, we've known that for years actually.”

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“According to Nancy Merrill of Seattle, Washington at least.”

“Is she selling this stuff?”

“Hey, great idea!”

“I sent the twenty bucks!”

“Well look, it's time for the new Puzzler . . . ”

Website photo credits: Nancy Merrill, David Conklin PhotographyAlex Strazzanti Photography and Isabel Bay Design. Website built by Isabel Bay Design.