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How to Plant 99 Street Trees in Just a Few Hours

Greenery is helping grow community engagement in an urban business district

A Group Of People Pose In Front Of Tree They Planted On Street, Tree, Street Trees, Livable Communities

Photo courtesy AARP Rhode Island

Volunteers plant a dwarf juniper along Elmwood Avenue.


As part of a multifaceted neighborhood renewal effort, the city of Providence, Rhode Island, installed 99 steel, basket-style planters along Elmwood Avenue, a business district in the historic West End/South Side neighborhood of Elmwood.

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The planters, which arrived in the fall of 2014, were intended to beautify the neighborhood.

Just one problem: The funding neglected to include money for purchasing plants.

Okay, two problems: The empty planters looked just enough like the trash bins they were placed beside that they were soon filled with garbage. When winter arrived with a vengeance, the garbage became frozen inside the planters.

What was intended as a streetscape enhancement to build community pride and welcome people to Elmwood Avenue, quickly became an eyesore.

What: Elmwood Avenue Street Tree Plantings

AARP Rhode Island donated enough 24-inch dwarf juniper plants to fill all 99 planters. AARP volunteers and other people in the community stepped up with money and muscle, enabling the trash-plagued planters to be transformed into symbols of how livable communities can work.

Where: Elmwood Avenue, Providence, Rhode Island

When: March 28, 2015, starting at 9:30 a.m.

Location Details

Providence’s West End/South Side represents the city's toughest core. For decades the area was known almost exclusively for its urban blight, violent crime and high unemployment. Although many homes are abandoned or in decay, improvements are slowly shaping Elmwood Avenue's side streets where historic Victorian homes are being lovingly restored. (See the box at right for more about the Elmwood area.)

Why And For Whom

AARP Rhode Island has been working with community organizations — most notably the Elmwood Avenue Neighborhood Association — as well as faith-based groups, the city of Providence, the state of Rhode Island and others to create a safer, cleaner and friendlier environment for Elmwood residents and local businesses. In order to keep the improvements rolling and help solve the planter problem, AARP Rhode Island decided to contribute the needed junipers.

The Hurdles

The weather! Planting day was rainy and snowy with temperatures in the low 30s. Why didn't we wait until spring? The project had to be completed no later than Saturday, March 28, since the garden center had been storing the trees in a space it needed for its new spring plants.

Who Did The Work

More than two dozen volunteers from AARP and various neighborhood groups (including the Elmwood Avenue Neighborhood Association, the Friends of Knight Memorial Library, the Elmwood Avenue Crime Watch Association, the Elmwood Avenue Housing Authority and Friends of Peace and Plenty Park).

Partner groups stepped up to provide soil and equipment. Gardening architect Chris Ackley of the Olneyville Housing Corporation led the planting demonstration. He and his crew set the junipers near each of the already-installed planters along both sides of the half-mile stretch of Elmwood Avenue so the volunteers didn't have to do a lot of lifting, carrying and walking.

With so many hands at work, the first 55 junipers were planted within 90 minutes. (The freezing rain and snow helped to encourage fast work.) Since the remaining planters were still filled with ice, a crew from Olneyville Housing and a few volunteers completed the work over the next two weeks.

Keep In Mind

  • When street planters are left too long without soil and plants, they become filled with trash. (When this happened in Newport, Rhode Island, the city chose to remove the planters.)

  • Choose wisely when selecting what to plant. Junipers were chosen because they're evergreens, are sturdy and can survive in planters. Selecting a dwarf species of juniper was important in order to avoid having the shrubs grow to sizes that blocked views or outgrew the containers.

  • Decide whether the shrubs will be purchased and stored prior to planting or delivered to a central location on the day of planting. We chose the former so we'd more easily have the flexibility to plant on a good weather day.  As it turned out, the severe winter weather pushed us to planting on March 28, which is the date by which our plants needed to leave the nursery's storage.

  • Transport for delivering the shrubs at each planter location requires having suitable vehicles and personnel.

  • Although we distributed hand trowels, shovels proved to be more efficient for planting.

  • It's important to feed volunteers! The food service company Sodexo donated hot dogs and hamburgers, which were served at the nearby Assembly of God church following the planting.

  • Plants need ongoing care. Chris Ackley of Olneyville Housing Corporation is leading a maintenance team to prepare and maintain the planters and trash barrels. Elmwood Avenue businesses are helping to care for the junipers, and they're being encouraged to plant blooming annuals near the base of the planters.

The Costs (And Who Paid)

AARP provided:

  • 99 dwarf juniper plants ($3,200 total)
  • 15 trowels ($40 total)
  • 15 pairs of gardening gloves ($15 total)

The Olneyville Housing Corporation donated:

  • Workers for clearing trash from the planters and readying them with soil
  • $18,000 for transporting the plants, providing potting soil and maintaining the plants

Reviews And Feedback

"I never thought Elmwood Avenue would ever look so good," said one resident.

"I'm so impressed with the physical progress AARP and the community has made on the streetscape. It looks beautiful!" said Julia Valles, an AARP volunteer leader.

Learn More

John Martin is the communications director and Deborah Miller is the associate state director for community outreach, AARP Rhode Island.

Published May 2015