March 3, 2009

Positively Racine: More trees than people ...

By Bill Griffiths

It’s easy to pass by trees day after day, week after week, and while appreciating them, giving no thought whatsoever to the many purposes they serve or the complex effort involved in caring for them.

There are obviously a lot more trees in town than simply the ones owned by the City of Racine. The City has about 30,000 street trees, plus at least twice that many in the parks, cared for by the City Forester, Chuck Klimek, and his five full-time arborists.

While the trees provide beauty and shade much of the year, they also play a major role in controlling water runoff during storms. Trees' root systems absorb water over a large area. Additionally, the canopy of a tree slows the fall of rainwater so that the ground is capable of absorbing larger amounts than it otherwise would.

Trees are always growing, always aging and changing, and require structural pruning early in their lives to make them more storm resistant and help extend their life.
Years ago cities found that insects or disease could totally change the nature of an entire street or community with a major infestation or two. In the years immediately after Dutch Elm disease struck Racine a lot of fast growing Maples were planted.

Arborists today work to diversify the trees in any area, and Racine’s Forester has introduced a wide range of varieties into the mix, including: Linden, Hackberry, Kentucky Coffee, Bald Cypress, Gingko, Honey Locust, Ironwood, Serviceberry, Flowering Pear, Flowering Crab and others. The City buys trees from nurseries within 60 miles of here, in the same “hardiness” zone, so they can withstand the climate changes Racine experiences.

Periodically, the Forester takes an inventory of a particular type of tree to understand the risks and prevention efforts in the event something like the Emerald Ash Borer, which has had such a devastating effect in Michigan, should make its way here. (Here in SE Wisconsin, “EABs” have been found in Washington and Ozaukee Counties. See or A recent inventory of Racine’s ash trees yielded a count of about 2,100.

Insects and diseases in firewood moved here from other counties present a hazard to Racine’s trees, and while it is discouraged, movement is ultimately is state regulated.

The Forester and his team do tree removal year around (when splits, decay, disease or insect damage are found or reported, removing storm damaged trees and limbs, trees blocking the public right-of-way, etc.). Pruning is done in the summers as needed. Tree planting is done in the Spring and Fall. In the late Summer and early Fall, the arborists do a hazard tree survey looking at all the street AND park trees, looking for diseases, insects and structural defects.

Now all that is easy to write from the comfort of my desk, but if you take a good look at the paragraph you just read, this is VERY physical work. It can’t be done at a desk. It involves being in the field, being up in trees, safely handling tree trimming equipment and the resulting limbs or trunks … all in a wide variety of weather.

The Forester reports to the Parks Department here, and when Spring or Summer storms cause damage to 10 or 400 locations they get a lot of assistance from the Department of Public Works (which has the equipment and additional hands required to clear trees and limbs from streets).
The focus here is Racine’s multitude of City-owned trees and the care they get…that we who appreciate them easily overlook. As with any profession, the Forester and his team could easily fill a book with stories about storms and their effects; people encountered over the years; animals, birds, nests, concrete and steel found in caring for the trees; malicious vandalism; and mower and weed trimmer damage they’ve seen over the years.

So please, look after YOUR trees AND the trees in your parkways. Water them, make sure they have 3 inches of mulch (available free at three sites, from April through November, from the Department of Public Works. See “Green Racine” at If you have questions or spot a City tree that presents a hazard call the Park department at (262) 636-9131.


  1. Thank you for a positive and informative article on urban trees. Trees naturally grow in stands (families, if you will), and did not evolve to be planted singly, the way we do it. Nor did they evolve to handle many of the stresses of an urban environment (air pollution, salt, chemical runoff, etc.). Also, there is no turf (grass) in a forest competing with trees. The easiest thing you can do to help your trees is to provide the mulch that the article mentions. Mulch mimics the leaf litter and organic matter of the forest floor. However, DO NOT pile the mulch up against the trunk of the tree (that invites disease and infection) - spread it out at the root flare and thicken it up away from the tree.

    Sorry, but I just have to comment on the trees in those metal/concrete torture chambers downtown. Those are guaranteed to fail - they will never reach maturity - they are treated like furniture. Why not use artificial trees and save the expense and waste of regular re-plantings? You might think it's pretty when they leaf in come spring - I just see majestic plants dying a slow death.

  2. I like that Racine has so many trees and that the city is responsible for pruning, etc. of the "street trees." However, I reported to the city last September that a Maple "street tree" by the side of my house had received a considerable gash during a July altercation with either a garbage truck or a school bus. I'd attempted to save the tree by painting the large scar with pruning paint, but the damage was too much.

    Shortly after reporting the dead tree, it received a spray-painted green dot, which I presume meant that the tree had been designated for removal. I also received a postcard that the tree would be removed. That's the last action concerning the tree.

    The city pruned lots of other trees on my street and throughout my neighborhood during October, bypassing this dead tree many times. I supposed it then became too cold to deal with the dead tree.

    The tree is still there and now presents a danger to vehicles, pedestrians, my house, and overhead power and phone lines. When, oh when, will the city come take away this tree? And will they plant a replacement?

  3. Warren,

    Don't hesitate to call the city and let them know. Without your address they can't be helpful.

  4. They have my address. I gave them my address, and they sent me a postcard about the tree.

    I also have a friend in another neighborhood who has a city-painted green dot on a dead "street tree" in her front yard. The city has marked these trees and evidently knows they're out there.

  5. The trees are great. But, I don't know why they felt it necessary to plant a tree in front of every house on Villa street. All up and down, both sides from 8th to 18th. It was a huge mess and waste. Trees were planted with their roots exposed. They were planted without consulting home owners. We have gardening projects on going for over 6 years now. Those established gardens have been planned for sun perenials, not shade. It would be nice if we could work together. Planting trees without talking to home owners is why the trees are suffering. No, sun perennials means no hummingbirds, bees or butterflies. They need habitat as well. I am not impressed. my neighbor cannot grow anything in her yard because of all the shade. I know they control the park way, but if that is there attitude let them water them and care for the trees to then.