On a cool afternoon last October, I joined a gaggle of my neighbors and friends assembled near an empty, gravel-filled box, on a vacant lot in Frogtown in St. Paul. It may not have looked like a great place for a party, but we were celebrating: We’d just completed our 12th annual neighborhood tree-planting blitz.
Pizza and slices of cake decorated with the number “1,000” made the rounds. There were toasts and speeches, and we lined up for photos, shouting “trees!” in unison instead of “cheese.” This modest festivity marked the early achievement of a substantial goal: 1,000 new trees planted in Frogtown by 2025, by volunteers. What’s more, thanks to a federal grant, we’ll be planting another 1,000 trees in Frogtown and Summit-University — St. Paul neighborhoods with the lowest tree canopy — over the next five years.
(Frogtown, stretching in a skinny triangle north of University Avenue, between Lexington and I-35, is St. Paul’s most diverse, low-income community. Summit-University, which includes the historic Rondo neighborhood, is directly south of Frogtown.)
Back in 2011, I was part of a small group of Frogtowners who vowed to plant 1,000 trees in our community’s front and back yards, after learning how tree-deficient our neighborhood was. The “1,000 Trees” goal was suggested by resident and visual artist Seitu Jones, riffing off the work of Joseph Beuys, a conceptual artist who planted 7,000 oak trees throughout the city of Kassel, Germany in the 1980s.
Our tiny group — which kicked off by planting exactly one tree on a vacant lot on Dale Street — included Jones and now-Mayor Melvin Carter, then the area’s City Council representative. Over time, and with the help of advisors from the city’s forestry department and eventually, the U.S. Forest Service, the “Tree Frogs,” as we dubbed ourselves, persevered. We gradually increased our output, pioneering a simple method of cultivating bare-root trees in gravel-filled, irrigated outdoor beds. The Tree Frogs program is now a cornerstone of a neighborhood’s environmental health initiative known as Frogtown Green, which — full disclosure — I direct. (More about Frogtown Green later.)
As of November 2023, Frogtown Green’s Tree Frogs have distributed and planted 624 free shade and fruit trees in Frogtown yards. Add to that, a “mini-forest” of 600 small trees planted in a community garden we manage on Pierce Butler and Milton Street, and we surpass our goal, at 1,224 trees. (Mini-forests are intensively planted small areas, some as small as an urban parking space. The tightly placed native trees and shrubs provide heat-busting benefits, as well as dense habitat for birds, small mammals and pollinating insects.)
Our method for free residential tree distribution is low-tech, but “high-touch.” This year, with the help of summer interns, we flyered every single house and apartment building in Frogtown to offer them a free fruit or shade tree from a selection of hardy possibilities. When we plant trees in people’s yards, we make all the arrangements, alert the utility companies, and advise residents on tree selection and placement. All residents need to do is dig a hole on planting day and care for their new tree after that. We stay in touch with regular tips on tree care, urging recipients to — at minimum — water their trees using a five-gallon bucket once a week. No sense planting a tree if it won’t survive!
From 2021 to 2023, we have also shared trees and our resident-driven tactics in three adjacent, low-canopy neighborhoods. The result: thriving volunteer programs in four neighborhoods and a grand total of 1,589 trees distributed and planted by residents in Frogtown, Summit-University, Hamline-Midway and Payne-Phalen. Our partners each have slightly different methods, but we all concentrate on residential trees, and leave the boulevard trees to the city forestry department.
This year, for the first time, we had a 50-person waiting list in Frogtown for trees. Was it the fact that this July was the hottest one on record? Or that smoke from Canadian wildfires underscored the importance of trees’ pollution-absorption? Or just that we have finally caught the attention of our neighbors? Maybe all three.
Whatever the reason, I know we need to redouble our efforts, given our dire climate straits and the proven “eco-services” of mature trees. A tree’s shade lowers ambient temperatures by as much as 6 degrees, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and a carefully positioned tree can reduce a home’s energy costs by up to 25%. Frogtown’s “urban heat island” could shrink, if only we had more trees.
How Trees Map Income
The observation that tree canopy is least where income is lowest is practically cliché, observed repeatedly in anecdote and research. At a recent World Forum on Urban Forests that I attended in Washington D.C., one speaker put it succinctly: “A map of trees is a map of income.” Frogtown, with its median household income of less than $46,000, bears this out: Our tree canopy is the lowest in the city. Where wealthier neighborhoods like Highland Park and Macalester-Groveland have nearly 40% canopy, we limp along at 22%. Canopy also varies depending on a community’s racial makeup, as the bare yards of Frogtown in St. Paul and North Minneapolis attest (see “Growing Shade” maps from the Metropolitan Council for clear and visual evidence).
Reasons for this are complex, having less to do with traditional redlining and more to do with values and expectations of homeowners and renters. Landlords value ease of maintenance and may view trees as a pointless additional cost. In Frogtown, where a majority of residents are renters, we make special efforts to reach landlords, sending them postcards and using social media to stress trees’ benefits to property values, as well as to tenants’ utility expenses.
We also focus our efforts in parts of the neighborhood that are the barest, concentrating on the east end of Frogtown, with its combination of multi-unit apartments, public housing and commercial buildings. We’ve had some gratifying success with this effort, recently planting 42 new trees at Mt. Airy Homes, a public housing community on Frogtown’s east end, and another dozen at the privately run Liberty Homes in Summit-University.
Our neighbors value the trees they get, but In some places, people in poor neighborhoods reject even well-intentioned efforts at reforestation, according to researcher Christine Carmichael, a professor at the University of Vermont. Carmichael reports that between 2011 and 2014, 24 percent of Detroit residents who were offered a street tree turned it down. According to her, residents felt that trees were just another way for the city government to offload responsibility for civic infrastructure.
Since the Tree Frogs are volunteers and residents, not government workers, we haven’t encountered this attitude but we do know that our neighbors have more immediate concerns, perhaps, than ensuring their new tree gets the five gallons of water it needs to survive a hot summer. That’s why we try to make it easy to get the tree planted in the first place, and we send out quarterly reminders about the benefits of their new tree. And although we coordinate with the City of Saint Paul Forestry department, our work is strictly resident-driven; neighbors serving neighbors.
Our non-government model is economical, but it does take some money, starting with the trees themselves, which cost about $45 apiece. We’ve been lucky enough to get support from local donors, even before the Biden administration decided to send $1.5 billion down the federal pipeline for tree planting across the country. We’re slated to get a little of that money, eventually, but we already know we can operate on a shoestring, so we’re not too anxious about those next 1,000 trees.
Frogtown Green is literally a kitchen table operation; we have one full-time staffer (plus me, at a stipend that matches my monthly Social Security check). We have no office other than my well-worn oak table. Our annual budget of $129,000 this year covers not only our tree program, but also the management of three community gardens, a twice-weekly STEM program for kids at Frogtown rec centers and maintenance of multiple pollinator-friendly gardens throughout the neighborhood. Not to mention gas for my 1997 Ford Ranger, which has hauled hundreds of trees to their neighborhood homes.
Obviously, none of this could happen without a vast amount of community involvement and support, support that is increasing as the global temperature rises. We all know that climate change will hit Frogtowners hard. We’ll desperately need trees’ cooling shade, pollution-busting and stormwater management benefits.
As we work toward getting the next thousand trees in the ground, I’m heartened by the memories of that little gathering in October: evidence that — in Frogtown at least — community-driven tree planting can work!
Patricia Ohmans co-led the campaign for Frogtown Park and Farm, a 13-acre city park with a 5-acre public urban farm.