Planting trees as the solution to climate change

Plant a trillion trees

This article is the first in a series from Tortoise a news organization that spends more time investigating the issues that matter and going in depth.

The climate crisis is real. But so too are the means of tackling it. To coincide with the launch of Tortoise’s Responsibility100 Index, we wanted to take a detailed, constructive look at what we can do to address the climate emergency. And there’s something we can do now: plant trees. A lot of them.

We asked Giles Whittell to consider which ones, where, and how to make that happen. And to examine the doubts and questions: how useful are trees really? Does carbon off-setting just excuse more emissions? Might planting new forests be used to justify the destruction of old woodlands and wild places?

The planet is not a lost cause. Meet the saviours.

Does anyone know of tree planting/rewilding projects in our region that need support/volunteers?


This great question (I would love to help out in a local rewilding project!) reminded me of learning about Canadian tree planting, which my friend told me is similar to corn detasseling work for Midwestern teenagers in the summer.

From that website I linked to:

A Simon Fraser University study of treeplanters revealed that the physical exertion level and work efficiency of treeplanters is among the highest ever recorded in human occupational performance studies. In fact, they measured treeplanters with relative exertion levels 75 per cent of an Olympic marathoner – and tree planters do it every day.

But of course that is a very specific version of what @Susan_Gilbert is writing about!

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I’m unsure of any projects that need more volunteers, I know the USFWS and the university typically have a seed harvest in the fall for their prairie restoration projects, and are doing work. Keep an ear out, there might be more information in the spring as that’s when most planting is done for prairie restoration. Does the city/homeowners associations have any tall grass/weed ordinances that limit people growing native prairie grasses instead of a lawn?

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There’s a good point here, which is that trees aren’t the only kinds of plants that can be used to capture carbon, and since this part of Minnesota was almost completely treeless before European colonization, things like prairie restoration might be more ecologically and historically appropriate.

I think we looked into this some years ago, and in Morris the rule is that lawn grass (i.e., not “ornamental” grass) shouldn’t be than 6 inches, and it shouldn’t be allowed to go to seed. Any kind of prairie garden will almost certainly violate both of those rules (I know ours do). If it’s clearly a “garden” then they arguably count as “ornamentals” and we’re probably OK. If we planted the bulk of property in prairie plants (including grasses), though, then the case would be harder to make. The prairie plantings along the offices on the south side of the Science Building at UMM, for example, can hardly be seen as a “garden”, so that would probably be in violation of the city’s rules.

It would be interesting to see how more native-plant-friendly communities have worded these kinds of rules.


It would be interesting to see how more native-plant-friendly communities have worded these kinds of rules.

I found this 2013 report from a Kansas City group.

In 2011, in order to safeguard natural landscaping, Minneapolis altered its noxious plant ordinances to make a simple three-category distinction between noxious weeds (defined by existing state statutes), unmaintained growth, and intentional growth called “Managed Natural Landscapes” (9). These landscapes are defined as “planned, intentional and maintained plantings of native and non-native plants.” Plants that fall in this category are allowed to exceed the 8-inch height limit for grasses, as long as they are absent of noxious weeds and the plants do not constitute a health, safety or fire risk. This ordinance does not include setback requirements, and no government or neighborhood review process is necessary.

And that led me back to trees, finding out about this cool program for “TreeKeepers,” volunteers trained in :deciduous_tree: planting and maintenance for municipalities, etc.! I wonder if there’s a Minnesota equivalent that could help train people in our area?

It has been said that it requires five years to plant a tree: one hour to actually plant it, and the remainder of the time to ensure that it becomes properly established. Research has shown that the average street tree lives less than ten years due to the harsh conditions of the urban environment.

While local municipalities are responsible for the preservation, protection and maintenance of all city trees, economic realities have limited the ability of some communities to provide adequate attention to young trees. Small and newly planted trees have the highest mortality rate and therefore need the most help; committed TreeKeepers are able to address these needs.

TreeKeepers receive training in environmental awareness and basic arboricultural principles. Through twelve hours of classroom time and six hours of outdoor training, participants learn about tree identification, site suitability, proper planting techniques, after planting care and pruning. Upon completion of the course, TreeKeepers are asked to give 24 hours of volunteer time to the Heartland Tree Alliance for municipal tree care projects around the Kansas City metropolitan region (it is not required to volunteer, although we highly recommend it).

The classes are:

  • The Urban Forest – an intro to trees and identification
  • Urban Soils and Basic Tree Biology
  • Tree Planting (includes outdoor session)
  • Tree Pruning (includes outdoor session)
  • Tree Problems
  • Field Days

Thanks a ton for sharing the info on the Minneapolis “lawn” rules. We might consider asking some of the regional city councils to explore this kind of extension.

I asked my sister if she knew of any cities with “prairie friendly” laws, and she fished up a reference in a report some of her students did to Prairie Crossing, Illinois, which apparently has a lot of native landscaping. A lot of their homes have apparently received a Conservation@Home certification which, for their county, requires:

  • A young oak is present
  • Plants native to northeastern Illinois cover at least 5% of the landscape
  • Lawn chemicals are absent – or rainwater flows through a garden or other water-absorbing feature
  • Buckthorn is absent – or covers less than 5% of the landscape

(Our property is probably pretty close to meeting these; not sure if our natives cover 5%, but we’re darn close if not there.)

I couldn’t anything about their “lawn rules” on-line, but I bet there are such things and they would share them if we asked.

I know that we’ve had some boulevard tree mortality at our house over the years. When we moved into this house in 1991, the boulevard trees were all old established elm and ash trees. Since then we’ve lost all but one, and it’s a fairly sad panda (to mix my taxonomic metaphors). The city has planted new trees, but at least one or two of them didn’t survive the first few years and had to be replaced. I think that everything we currently have is pretty established and should be OK barring some some sort of accident, etc.

I’ve heard Margaret Kuchenreuther argue that all we ought to be planting in Morris is burr oak from acorn, but that would require many years of looking after before the tree would be big enough to not get accidentally mowed over, so I don’t think the city is likely to go that direction. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: (One of our boulevard trees is a burr oak which is doing very nicely, but it was several feet tall when the city planted it. They actually planted two at the time, but the other one didn’t make it, and they replaced it with something else.)

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Re: TreeKeepers - there is a Minnesota equivalent! Minnesota Tree Care Advocate ( - I did a day-long training with them a few years back and I’m now a Morris Tree Steward (volunteer, of course).


Oh my gosh, that’s so cool! Thank you, @Heather!

The website currently says for Morris:

Please keep in contact with Sue Granger at if you are interested in participating in a Tree Steward training in the future.

Would that indeed be the thing to do?


Yes! Sue is my tree contact - she gives me an area of town to monitor, and I get emails from her when there is a tree planting event.


Here’s the actual Morris ordinance.


Subd. 1. It is the primary responsibility of any owner or occupant of any lot or parcel of land to maintain any weeds or grass growing thereon at a height of not more than eight (8”) inches (except for native grasses and wildflowers indigenous to Minnesota, planted and maintained on any occupied lot or parcel of land, set back a minimum of ten (10’) feet from the front property line as part of a garden or landscape treatment, which are exempt from being no more than 8”); to remove all public health or safety hazards therefrom; to install or repair water service lines upon any property which is improved with commercial or habitable structures; and to treat or remove insect-infested or diseased trees thereon. It shall also be unlawful for any such person or persons to cause, suffer or allow noxious weeds or plants identified and defined by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to grow on any such lot or parcel of land so as to endanger the health, safety and welfare of the City.

				Source:  Ordinance #75, 3rd Series
				Effective Date:  07-17-07

Subd. 2. Weed and Grass Nuisance. The City may cause such work to be done beginning seven (7) days after any such owner or occupant fails to comply with a notice given by the City Manager of a violation of Subdivision 1 of this Section. The City shall keep a record of the cost of such work done, to include reasonable City processing costs, and bill the owner of the private property where the work was done.

Subd. 3. Cost of Work to be Assessed. The City Manager shall, upon direction of the Council, and on receipt of the information provided for in the preceding Subdivision, assess the cost of such work as a special assessment against the lots or parcel where the work was done, and such special assessment shall at the time of certifying taxes to the County Auditor be certified for collection as other special assessments are certified and collected.

Subd. 4. Administrative Fee. Failure of the owner or occupant of private property to comply with Subdivision 1 of this Section shall result in the issuance of an administrative fee. Regardless of who occupies the property, the owner of the private property is responsible for the requirements of this Section and is responsible for payment of the administrative fee. The administrative fee will be set by Resolution of the City Council. It is a misdemeanor to violate Subdivision 1 and fail to pay the administrative fee within thirty days of receiving written notice of the fee being assessed. The administrative fee and misdemeanor violation for failing to pay the fee are not exclusive remedies for failure to comply with this Section.

Subd. 5. Continuing Violations. Each day that violations of this Section occur is a separate violation of this Section and shall constitute a separate offense.

				Source:  Ordinance #105, 3rd Series
				Effective Date:  05-30-16

It’s good to hear that people are allowed to have their own native prairie plots.


Another option for increasing the number of trees on the planet is to donate them to organizations that plant trees worldwide such as TIST (, which works with small farmers to plant and monitor seedlings and costs $1 per tree. There are many similar programs out there. This year, my Christmas gift for family members was to buy trees in their name. I also recommend using the browser Ecosia, which plants a tree for every 45 searches you do.