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Greening Philadelphia: One Man's Tale

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By Morgan Zalot

Not even last week's 100-plus degree heat could deter Hasan Malik from filling a 100-gallon tank in the back of his pickup truck with water for the young trees in Frankford's Overington Park.

"It's a good thing I came out today," Malik said as he unraveled the tank's hose and headed off to water several trees he said were in their second year of planted life in the park.

It's a small part of a larger, citywide effort to increase the number of trees in Philadelphia.  The ambitious goal is to double the city's tree cover from 15 percent to 30 percent by 2026. A key player in the effort is the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. And a key part of the PHS strategy is the Tree Tenders program, which allows community groups around Philadelphia to receive and learn to plant trees in their neighborhoods.

Malik 1.jpgMalik, now a junior civil engineering major at Temple University, started Northeast Tree Tenders, a group that serves the entire Northeast area, from Frankford to Somerton.

The 20-year-old Northeast native is an ideal volunteer: active, energetic and committed to the cause. "I kind of got tired of the concrete, and I always wanted to do it," said Malik, who said he began his involvement in tree planting as part of a senior project when he was at Masterman High School in 2008.

In his first season leading Northeast Tree Tenders, Malik had 23 trees planted. Since then, he estimated that nearly 300 trees have been planted as part of the program, all in the Northeast, except for four planted near Masterman in the Spring Garden section during his senior year.

"We have the biggest geographic area of any Tree Tenders group," Malik said, rattling off a handful of the ZIP codes his group serves.

In addition to running Northeast Tree Tenders, a volunteer position, he also works for West Philadelphia's UC Green, managing the organization's Green Corps - a group of 10 high school students who help with the trees over the summer.

Malik replace.jpgAfter volunteering with UC Green during high school, Malik said, the organization hired him part-time this summer to run Green Corps. It was from UC Green that he borrowed the water tank he drove to Overington Park to water the trees.

"I'm not really supposed to be doing this," he admitted, explaining that community members who request trees through Tree Tenders sign pledges that they will care for their trees.

"We have some people who don't care enough. I don't have the time to do this, but I still do it," Malik said, explaining that newly planted trees need at least 15 gallons of water each week if they are to take root and survive.

As organizer of Northeast Tree Tenders, Malik always has his work cut out for him. The group holds meetings in a mosque near Cottman Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard. It currently is accepting applications for the spring 2011 planting, which are due by August 15.

"Because we only have one city inspector is why we're accepting applications now," Malik said. Each site for a potential planting needs to be inspected by the city or by a Philadelphia Horticultural Society TreeVitalize arborist, who then determine which breed of tree to order based loosely on certain criteria set by community members who will plant the trees, such as height.

Malik 3.jpg"We need funding in addition to TreeVitalize," Malik said. "I would love to have it by spring 2011."

He plans to partner with businesses and organizations around the Northeast to expand Northeast Tree Tenders beyond the spring and fall plantings that TreeVitalize allows each year. For Malik, the sky is the limit. He's already done the math and figured out that he and his fellow group members will need to raise between $6,000 and $10,000 to plant 60 additional trees, over and beyond the ones provided by TreeVitalize.

He said he hopes to follow in UC Green's footsteps by partnering with local institutions, businesses and organizations.

In addition to raising money, Malik also has to worry about vandalism. In Overington Park, two Northeast Tree Tenders trees were vandalized not long after being planted. Luckily, the trees survived and grew back stronger, Malik said, motioning toward them.

"They're good now," he said, adding that the first year is the most crucial year in a tree's life.

He later pointed out two more trees the Tree Tenders had planted, which he identified as Hawthornes and stood next to one, looking up at it.

"I'm about six feet with shoes on," he said. "What do you say; this tree is about two of me? About 12 feet? They were only six to 10 feet at planting."

The only problem is that, in hopes of protecting the trees' frail trunks from dogs' chewing at the bark, someone coated them with tar; an old practice Malik said was believed to protect trees back in the 1970s.

"That's not good," he said, pointing out the differences between the sticky, tar-covered bark and the porous natural bark. "Otherwise, they look awesome."

In addition to the planting at Overington Park, the Northeast Tree Tenders have held plantings in other parks as well as residential and commercial areas, including about 17 trees they planted on the commercial corridor at Cottman and Rising Sun avenues.

"I've planted way too many trees," Malik joked, shaking his head in disbelief. "It's blowing my mind."

 

Morgan Zalot is a reporter for Metropolis.  For more information about the TreeTenders program visit the Horticultural Society's website.

 

 

 

 

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