The trees planted at the spot where Thomas Avenue dead-ends at Constitution Court keep dying and the village is trying to figure out why after a nearby resident reached out to Forest Park officials. 

Resident Christian Altman, who lives half a block south, said he was worried the trees hadn’t been adequately watered especially after a second round of plantings also failed. Commissioner of Public Property Jessica Voogd, whose responsibilities include oversight over trees in public rights-of-way, responded quickly, and the trees were replaced. But three of the five replacement trees quickly died as well, even though the village made sure to water them more.

The village contracted Forest Park-based McAdam Landscape Professionals, 2001 Desplaines Ave., to investigate what happened. According to an e-mail shared with the Review, they determined that it was likely a combination of accumulation of road salt and the clay in the soil keeping the water from getting in. The village kept Altman in the loop about the results of McAdam investigation, and he said he was pleased with Forest Park’s responsiveness.

According to the Village of Forest Park Urban Forestry Management Plan, as of this June, the village had only two live Arborvitae trees which account for around 0.06% of Forest Park’s tree population. It recommends planting more of those trees, with a caveat that they should be limited to parks. 

Altman said when he and his husband moved to Forest Park five years ago, they set about making a more environmentally friendly garden in their yard, with native and pollination-friendly plants. That got Altman interested in what it takes to grow trees.

On May 20, he noticed that the five Arborvitaes were all dead. Altman e-mailed Voogd to bring the situation to her attention.

“The reason why I initially emailed her was when the trees were initially dead, the weather was getting nice, and people were getting out,” he recalled. “My main incentive is to keep Forest Park a beautiful place to live, where we can walk around the neighborhood and be proud of what we see.”

That e-mail originally ended up in Voogd’s junk folder, leading Altman to send a follow-up e-mail on June 1. Voogd responded quickly.

“Shortly after Sal Stella became [public works] director, he began the practice of placing watering bags on newly planted trees to avoid exactly what you mention,” she wrote in response. “New trees do require some extra attention and we want to keep our investment of tax dollars and the future of our urban forest healthy!”

The Department of Public Works replaced the dead trees with new arborvitae trees on June 3. But, on July 17, Altman e-mailed Voogd to let her know that three trees were already dead.

“This is concerning for several reasons,” he wrote. “First, arborvitae are native trees in our area, so keeping them alive should not take a heroic effort. Beyond that, though, it worries me that, after the first set of trees died within a year of planting, the same mistake (not watering new plantings during the summer heat) was allowed to recur. It is worth pointing out that taxpayers have now paid for 10 arborvitae trees within a year for this location, and eight of them have not survived.”

Altman told the Review that he was worried that what happened with the arborvitae might be a symptom of a bigger problem.

“I know Forest Park has bigger issues than this, but it bothers me to see this sort of smaller-scale project not be successful, and it makes me question — what happens on the bigger issues?” he said

Voogd responded that the trees have, in fact, been watered regularly this time, so something else must be causing the trees to die. She explained that McAdam was studying the issue. She also mentioned that the village will be reimbursed for the dead trees, so taxpayer revenues weren’t as much of an issue.

On Aug. 5, Stella shared McAdam’s conclusions with Voogd and Altman.

“The area in question is a high road salt area that receives salt from Thomas Avenue and Constitution Court during a given snow/ice event,” he wrote. “The area also has a decent top layer of clay that does not let water travel through it properly to allow any plantings to survive.”

Stella said his department will dig away the clay in the soil and replace it with compost. At McAdam’s suggestion, they plan to put in several salt and heat tolerant flowers and shrubs and put in mulch “to retain moisture and promote growth.”

“McAdam recommends an outer barrier of Black-Eyed Stella Daylilies, Millennium Onions and Gerald Darby Multicolored Iris.  Mixed in the middle of the  planter will be Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass, Arizona Sun Blanket Flowers and Kodiac Black Diervilla,” Stella wrote. “As noted by McAdam, the first year to two years the plants will grow at a slower pace to get accustomed to the area and then take off in growth by the third year.”

Altman said that, overall, he’s been pleased with how the village handled his concerns.

“[Voogd has] always been very engaging and, I think, helpful and respectful of me as Forest Park resident, so I can’t complain,” Altman said.