Sustainable Urban Design: Educator’s Toolkit for Project-Based Learning, page 9 of 20

Photo of a young girl planting a tree
© Devan King

Creating Urban Habitats: Tree Planting

Planting trees on your school’s campus, around the community, and at private homes or businesses is an easy way to get students involved in making positive changes to the community without significant infrastructure changes, permitting processes, or financial investment. Tree planting provides a forum to teach students about the benefits of trees—clean air and water, erosion prevention, habitat improvement, evapotranspiration, shade, greenhouse gas reduction—while allowing them to be caretakers of their environments.

Trees also provide long-term stewardship opportunities for students, including maintenance and pruning, insect pest monitoring, and tree species identification. Students can use trees in the community to participate in citizen science initiatives like Project Budburst, which supports student observation skills and phenology data collection, and Habitat Network, which allows students and teachers to map habitats in and around the community.

An infographic illustrating how increasing urban trees helps improve air quality
© Erika Simek Sloniker/TNC

Get Started

  1. Develop a tree-planting plan.
    • Where are you going to plant?
    • What are the light and soil conditions in the selected area(s)?
    • Where is the nearest water source? How will you transport water to the tree(s)?
    • What species of tree will do best in the above conditions (right plant right place)?
    • Do you need to amend the soil to add necessary nutrients?
    • What size of tree can the location support?
    • What is the best time of year for planting trees in your area?
    • What is your budget?
  2. Sketch out the design. You and your students can create the designs by hand or use online design programs such as SmartDraw and SketchUp.
  3. Identify tree types (preferably a native species) for your project. Use a planting guide, which can search for native trees and plants by state, habit, duration, light requirement, and soil moisture, as well as bloom, leaf, and size characteristics.
  4. Search for tree suppliers. Local native plant and tree suppliers may be willing to sell trees at a reduced price for school projects. National organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation and Arbor Day Foundation sometimes provide tree seedlings for free if they are for community projects. Search locally for city urban forestry programs that may be willing to partner with schools for tree planting projects. Many cities provide free or low cost native trees as well as maintenance instructions specific to the location.
  5. Determine the equipment and supplies you’ll need. Use a budget calculator to help determine expenses.
    • Green Education Foundation Garden Budget Calculator
    • Parents, school staff, or community members might be willing to loan or donate tools. Yard sales are often a good source of garden tools.
  6. Determine what permissions you’ll need for planting and notify parents so that students can dress appropriately. Consider any safety precautions you should take on planting day.
  7. Determine if you’ll need volunteers to help with planting day and if you’ll need help bringing the trees to your location.
  8. Have a planting party and be sure to document your project with photos!
An infographic illustrating how increasing urban trees helps to decrease urban temperatures
© Erika Simek Sloniker/TNC

Common Challenges

  • Getting permission from school boards and maintenance staff
  • Organizing tree delivery.
  • Excavating holes if many trees are to be planted.
  • Watering the trees until they are established in the environment.

Maintenance Schedule and Other Notes

  • Watering typically needs to take place over the first 2 summers (when the kids are not in school). Watering tools like “gator bags” are quite helpful.
  • Ideally, plants will be pruned yearly.
  • If the plant drops leaves or needles, plan to rake those up.
  • Adding mulch around the base of the tree should be done yearly.

Related Lessons and Classroom Integration

Additional Project Resources