When Herman Gary walks his 6-year-old daughter to the Roberto Clemente School in the Hill each morning, he identifies a red oak, a cherry, or an American red linden tree along the way. No! she says. Yes, he replies, and with pride. I’m going to school just like you.
Transitioning back from the prison system, Gary (left in photo, with coworker Kirk Proctor) works 16 hours a week as an apprentice with Urban Resources Initiative (URI). He’s one of 12 men in a new program to help the city reach its goal of planting 10,000 trees within five years.
Last week the City Plan Commission approved an expanded and multi-year expansion of the deal between URI and the New Haven Tree Planting Program, which now includes an apprentice portion for ex-offenders and also one for city high school kids. The vote was unanimous.
From the city’s end, the program is administered through the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Trees. The tree planting budget will now be $100,000 annually. The department reimburses the non-profit URI, which is associated with the Yale School of Forestry, approximately $300 for each tree planted.
URI Director Colleen Murphy-Dunning said, “It’s a lot less costly than the private sector.”
She said the tree survival rate from URI’s work is about 95 percent.
Building on a good relationship with URI, which has been managing the city’s greenspace program since the mid-1990s, the city decided in 2007 to address its serious planting backlog: It designated URI the sole provider for tree plantings both on public and private land, if citizens request it.
That year they planted 50 trees. In 2009, the number was just under 500.
On a bright Tuesday afternoon Gary and his colleagues were placing in the ground about numbers 710 to 721.
According to Murphy-Dunning, the goal is for URI to plant 1,000 this year. If private landowners match the public sector, that’ll make the mayoral-announced goal of planting 10,000 trees in five years.
“The mayor announced the goal last year because more trees were being removed than planted. We were losing our canopy and he wanted to reverse that trend,” said Murphy-Dunning.
That’s why two new programs for utilizing 12 ex-offenders in re-entry job training and 18 high school students to plant have been ongoing since the spring. Six men were recruited for the work from Crossroads Continuum of Care and six from Empower Enterprise, a new re-entry transition program operating out of Project MORE on Grand Avenue.
On Tuesday, Gary, along with four other men from the Empower Enterprise program, were being supervised by URI’s GreenSkills Manager Margaret Carmalt in planting 11 trees at Middletown Park on the eponymous avenue by the city’s border with North Haven.
It was not quite noon under a bright sun, A red oak, two crab apples, and two black gums had been planted. In all 11 trees were to be placed in the park.
Showing Carmalt some sort of white larva that had emerged on his shovel as he dug, Gary took a brief break to say, “Sometimes I catch myself walking down the street naming trees.
“When I’m with my baby girl, I tell her. She says, ‘Are you sure’? I tell her I learned that in school.”
Gary has had apprenticeships in woodworking and painting as well to help him transition back to productive work. He said he liked the landscaping work the best. “I’m a strong a person. I like to put it to work.”
Gary and his colleagues such as Kirk Proctor and Jose Diaz (far right in photo, in white) put in about a dozen trees each day during the season, which runs through November.
Whereas the adults work during the week, the 18 high school kids work weekends and end up putting in perhaps three trees per day.
In addition to learning about trees and the hard work of digging the hole, dropping in the compost and mulch, and creating the donut for water, there’s the GPS-ing.
“With each tree we have a hand-held GPS unit. Then we can put the tree up on Google’s GPS so homeowners can go on Google [maps]and see the tree,” said Murphy-Dunning.
She said the high school kids do more GPS-ing and fewer plantings, whereas the reverse is the case for the re-entry crews.
With the expanded work crews and the participation often of students from Yale School of Forestry, “We plant every single day except Thanksgiving,” Murphy-Dunning said.
She added that the idea is to reinventory not only the new trees planted, but the whole block around it, and eventually the city’s entire inventory of trees. She said the data would likely be up on URI’s site within a few weeks.
Any property owner can ask for a tree to be planted and then take a little training on how to care for it. All at no cost. “It’s your tax money,” said Murphy-Dunning.
Then one of the crews comes out and helps select a species – shorter-growing if under a power line, for example, or an oak if the sky is clear above.
Gary’s friend Proctor said he was amazed to learn about the cells in trees and the endless number of species.
“We’re giving something back,” Jose DIaz said. “And it’s always going to be here, for a long time.”
“I never thought I’d do it [tree planting and landscaping],” Gary said as he went to work on the donut for the red oak going in at the middle of the park. “But it’s one of the best things [I’ve ever done].”