Written By Jessica Alba.

Posted on December 2nd, 2021.

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What makes a good tree planting site and how do I qualify for Croton Trees for Tribs?

Part of my role at the Watershed Agricultural Council is to run Croton Trees for Tribs (T4T), which is a tree planting program to restore riparian buffers within the NYC Watershed. The first step in running this program is to scout out lands within the Watershed as potential tree planting sites. A bad site can kill good trees, so it’s important to choose planting locations carefully. When I’m on the lookout for a new tree planting site, there are a few key elements I check for.

The first one is property location. T4T is a state-wide project in New York run by many agencies, but I work specifically in the Croton region of the NYC Watershed, which is in Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties. That means tree planting projects I coordinate have to be on properties that drain into one of the NYC Reservoirs on the east side of the Hudson River. Otherwise, I pass the project on to another agency that works with the region that property is in. To see if you qualify for Croton T4T by owning land within the NYC Watershed, put your address into our mapping tool here.

After I confirm the site is in the Watershed, the next thing I look for is water. The goal of T4T is to plant along tributaries, hence the name, so if the property I am looking at has no water bodies on it or immediately near it, it won’t qualify. 

Relevant location and water access are the bare necessities for T4T, but they don’t by themselves create a successful planting site. A site may technically qualify for T4T without actually providing good habitat for the young trees. So once I’ve determined the minimum requirements are met, I’ll investigate further to make sure the baby trees also have space, light, and are in an accessible location. 

Here are some examples of what all these variables look like together:

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Private property in Dutchess County

Some sites might need work to prepare for incoming trees. You might not think of other vegetation as a hazard for growing trees, but invasive species can be particularly damaging to saplings because they can outcompete young trees for resources, and possibly even smother them in the process. On this property, the landowner had to clear away invasive mile-a-minute so there would be enough space for new trees. The vines still visible in the thick forest beyond the clearing signify that this site will need to be cared for, the way a garden with seedlings needs to be weeded, until the trees are old enough to fend for themselves.  

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Private property in Dutchess County

Upon initial inspection it may seem like there is enough room in between existing trees for new ones to be added. Forests in the Croton Watershed have low levels of regeneration due to intense deer browse, so it is common to see a forest like this, with a fairly open understory. However, if you look at the tree tops, you’ll see there are no gaps in the canopy. This means when the leaves are out in the summer, the forest will be much darker than it appears now. Light is possibly the most deceptive tree growth limiting factor, as it is easy for us to forget how shaded a leafed-out forest can be. To have a successful T4T project, it is best to see at least a few hours of sunlight every day or growth will be severely stunted. If you are unsure of how dark your forest is, take a look at it in the summer when the leaves and sun make light and dark spots easier to notice. 

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Private property in Dutchess County

This site has a clear connection to water and sits within the Croton Watershed, so on paper, it qualifies for T4T. But as we move uphill on either side of the stream, this site becomes less ideal for the program. This riparian zone is already well established with a stand of trees, and even though there is some space on the ground to plant more, when we look up we can see a closed canopy that will shade out new growth. 

The rocky outcropping that angles down towards the water means that moving saplings and supplies back and forth could be quite challenging. Therefore, it is important to consider how likely a landowner is to tend to their trees when access is difficult, since neglected trees have a lower chance of survival.

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Marsh Sanctuary in Mount Kisco

If we look further back to the other side of the road where the Kisco River starts flowing, we can see a forest that is much denser than the landscape in the foreground. Mature trees and dense vines will shade out saplings, so it is best not to bother planting back there. The riparian zone on this side of the stone wall is much more open, so not only could this area sustain trees in terms of light and space, but in my opinion itneedstrees to stabilize the stream bank. The sharply angled slope on the right seems to be eroding away. 

The dead ash tree on the left side of the river is both a blessing and a curse for a new planting site. A dead tree means that it will not leaf out and block sunlight, but it can also drop branches on the new trees as it begins to fall. If you have a lot of dead trees on your property, it is a good (and safer) idea to either wait for them to drop or have a professional remove them before you start planting. 

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Private property in Putnam County

Looking up, we can see there are no branches shading out this planting site. However, there is a power line cutting across the top that has to be taken into consideration. It is best to stick with smaller trees or shrubs when working under a hazard like this. 

The left side of this site slopes down from a road, making a healthy riparian buffer all the more important and also all the more at risk. Besides some leaf litter, the trees are the only things stopping pollutants from making their way to the stream, but that also means these trees could take on a lot of salt, oil, and human litter. Trees planted here will need to be tolerant to these stressors. On the right side of the site, the open grassy space is fairly level with the stream that runs through it. Trees here will need to be tolerant to moisture, as it is possible that during heavy rains this space will flood.

A broken tree at the end of this site means that even more light will make its way to the ground. With all the branches and most of the trunk already gone there is less of a hazard to the new trees. This is also a great example that when old trees come down, landowners can use that as an opportunity to help their forest regenerate. 

Figuring out a good place to put trees can be tricky. To get started, remember to consider growing space, light, and accessibility, as well as any other notable features of your woods. Thankfully trees are pretty adaptable, and after a bit of searching you can usually find native plants that suit the needs of you and your property.   

If you are interested in applying for T4T and your property is in the Croton Watershed, you can check out more about T4T here, or contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  If you live elsewhere in New York but still want trees, take a look at the T4T webpage from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. 


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