Behind The Scenes with A Local Street Tree On A Mission: Parks Department & Griffins Landscaping Branching Out for Greener Communities

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Delivering an American Hophornbeam. Credit: Linda Perlman

Every street tree planted citywide is a reflection of a dedicated team of landscaping professionals among city agency staff members, and may even include residents who helped facilitate a greener community. Analogous to teamwork, a tree branches out in unison with other trees, while offering residents and wildlife rewards for generations to come. 

Since the early 2000s, this columnist has been requesting street trees in Forest Hills and Rego Park by creating a log and calling 311 or completing a NYC Parks Department website form by including an address or intersection: Then a service request number is provided for periodic updates. 

In 2019, one of several trees were requested by this columnist along 66th Road between 99th Street and 102nd Street. On November 3, 2022, mundane cement was excavated. The sun conveyed additional luster as the much-anticipated tree was planted on the afternoon of May 22, 2024 by Griffins Landscaping, coming all the way from Peekskill, New York. Now an American Hophornbeam, also known as Ironwood and Ostrya Virginiana, adds to the diversity of 66th Road’s street trees, which include Callery Pear, Swamp White Oak, Pin Oak, Littleleaf Linden, London Planetree, and Dawn Redwood.  

All tree species are unique and tell a distinctive story. The American Hophornbeam tree, a native, perennial, and deciduous tree with very hard word (hence Ironwood), is said to have been introduced to the landscape in 1690. This native species of the Birch family can be found in the eastern U.S., and southern Canada, as well as throughout the mountains of Mexico, south to northern South America. The tree prefers moist soils, pH ranges of 4.2 through 7.6, and full sun to partial shade.  

This tree typically achieves a height of 20 to 50 feet and offers a spread that is 15 to 30 feet in width. In its early years, the canopy somewhat resembles a pyramid, and then a nearly oval crown will follow. It produces alternating leaves that are oval and two to six inches in length and half in width, and is somewhat reminiscent of American Elm. According to the University of Kentucky – College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, “The tree’s flowers consist of male catkins, often approximately one inch long, grouped in threes and visible throughout the winter. Female catkins are visible in April. Fruits are nutlets, enclosed in hop-like pale green, papery capsules.” Based on its flowers of both sexes, the tree is monoecious. 

Trees complement architecture, boost character, enhance property values, mark a community’s history, address stormwater runoff, filter and cool the air, offer shade, and conserve energy. Personal relationships are initiated, as every tree will plant roots to stories that unfold over generations and bond community residents, and become the basis of educational opportunities, literature, and artwork. Some trees can even be officially landmarked.

Street trees are undoubtedly part of New York City’s fabric, and despite the importance of achieving diverse tree canopies, each hardy species is selected for a specific tree pit. “A tree-lined street improves the overall health of a neighborhood, and helps to beautify a concrete landscape,” said Chris Clark, press officer of NYC Parks. “Conditions that street trees grow in are harsh, and there are critical characteristics that a species must have to survive. Trees on the roadside have to endure salt spray and drought conditions. Even trees with a larger surface area of lawn in a median or greenstreet, still benefit from being drought tolerant, considering the limited amount of natural soil area and infiltration in these sites,” he continued. 

On May 22, Griffins Landscaping’s very dedicated and passionate team was ready to plant an American Hophornbeam. Supervising the contractor’s team was Kumar, who said, “Trees are green infrastructure. In the hot summer, we will need shade. The more trees, the better. It also depends on where we are planting. We will come back to inspect, and if there are any wounds, we will let NYC Parks know.” He pointed out the importance of applying mulch to conserve water and safeguard soil from erosion, as well as watering. 


Carrying and untying the tree. Credit: Linda Perlman

American Hophornbeam is a beautiful species, according to Sean O’Connor, Assistant Controller of Griffins Landscaping. “My favorite characteristic is how their leaves change color from a green to yellow and orange or red. Personally, when their leaves turn red, I believe it may be one of the most beautiful trees.” 

Every endeavor signifies a labor of love. In collaboration with the Parks Department, Griffins Landscaping is planting approximately 2,200 trees. The majority will be in Queens and 670 are in the Bronx. For Queens, trees are being planted within Community Boards 1 to 6, 8, and 11 to 13, whereas the Bronx will consist of Community Boards 5 to 8 and 11 to 12. “For maintenance, we will be watering roughly 8,000 trees throughout the summer,” said O’Connor.  

“I believe that trees elevate the aesthetic of the city, breaking up the concrete jungle with greenery,” he explained. He also cited reducing air pollution, aiding in drainage, and offering shelter and food for birds as benefits. 

Griffins Landscaping holds a history of planting trees in Queens and the Bronx for nearly a decade, and established good rapport with the Parks Department. The firm, founded in the mid-1980s and has an over 5,000 clientele base, typically operates in Westchester, Putnam, and Rockland Counties. A comprehensive range of services for residential and commercial clients, including basic landscape maintenance to masonry work, is available. A sister company, Griffin Organics, focuses on lawn treatments.

O’Connor joined the organization in 2018, when they completed one contract and were pursuing two more. The first contract was QG-1315M, which entailed tree plantings in Rockaway, and was most challenging as a new partner. O’Connor explained, “We had to learn a whole new level of logistics to ensure we were getting the job done efficiently and effectively. What we were not expecting was not having a say in what trees go where. Since Rockaway is right on the ocean, it is subject to salt exposure, and the trees that we were required to plant there would unfortunately wither and need to be replaced.” 

NYC Parks draws from a selection of over 250 approved tree species and cultivars for curb planting, but selecting a street tree site entails more than the average resident may think. The Parks Department is committed to survey every potential location citywide, to determine its eligibility to grant a new tree a healthy lifespan. This is typically noted by a spray-painted white dot along the curb. Streets with few and no trees are surveyed, in addition to sites where trees once stood, and public requests are always considered. Foresters assess environmental conditions and available space and clearance for growth. 

When the Parks Department determines which tree pits can likely accommodate trees, Griffins Landscaping receives a marking book, which features a range of 500 to 1,200 locations. O’Connor explained, “Once we receive this list, our arborist will take up to a week routing the list. Once the list is routed, we then have to mark out each site, as well as contact NY811 to mark any utilities, which usually takes about 2 weeks. NY811 is a service all contractors need to use before digging in an area. We submit a ticket with an address, and they send out a foreman to mark that site for any utility lines.” Gas is marked in yellow spray-painted arrows, electric in red, and telecommunication is noted in orange. If a prospective site is conflicted by utilities, it will then be declined. 

A forester and planting contractor visit the site, and paint a white “T” where a tree will be planted. After all sites are marked, Griffins Landscaping obtains permits for each site from the Department of Transportation office to commence work. O’Connor explained, “For all sidewalk ‘new pits’ or expansion of existing pits, we send out a crew to sawcut the pavement with diamond tipped blades. We then have an excavating crew following them. For excavating, we utilize a wheeled mini-excavator, tri-axle dump trucks, jackhammers, stump grinders, and shovels. Behind them, we have a crew that follows and actually plants and tags the tree. Tagging a tree enables the Parks Department to know a tree has been planted, and when we water it, the crewman is required to scan the tag which creates a watering instance under that tree’s asset I.D.”

Once a tree has been planted, Griffins Landscaping typically maintains it for up to two watering seasons. “For watering, we send out seven to eight one-man crews with a designated list with around a 100-tree watering quota for the day. Some days they can do more and some days less, which depends on various factors, including traffic and hydrant issues. NYC Parks works with us in being able to obtain hydrant permits, so that our crews can fill up their 300-gallon watering tanks.” 

American Hophornbeam, the finished product. Credit: Michael Perlman

As a landscaping company, their roster fluctuates with each season. “During peak times, we employ close to around 80 to 100 individuals, and during off periods, it is reduced to about 40 to 50 individuals,” said O’Connor.

When the American Hophornbeam tree was planted among other tree plantings citywide, residents observed and sometimes extended a compliment. “It is a good feeling, no doubt. Our crews work very hard on these contracts and do their best to make sure the job is done properly. It is refreshing knowing there are people out there who indeed appreciate trees,” said O’Connor. Looking ahead, he said, “We hope to continue to plant trees in NYC.”

To discover the history of street trees, visit the tree census, which is consistently a work in progress:

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