How to Get a Free River Birch Tree in Washington DC

2010 > America

My RiverSmart river birch tree
They even water and mulch it!
I’ve always wanted a tree in my back yard. While my neighbourhood, Petworth, has beautiful old trees, all I have is a tree stump in my garden. The previous owners of my house cut down the tree that was in my yard, and now my west-facing back yard gets hot! in the summer.

A tree in my yard would provide shade, visual interest, a place for birds, and be one small contribution to cooling the District of Columbia, replacing its tree cover, and reducing rain runoff. That last reason, runoff, is where the District Department of Environment comes in.

Petworth, like much of old Washington, DC, is on a single sewer line system, which means that when it rains, the rain water goes into the sewer system and overwhelms the Blue Plains water treatment plant. In the past, they just dumped raw sewage into the Potomac. Now the city is trying to stop this practice at its source – the hundreds of thousands of downspouts across DC.

Through the RiverSmart Homes program, the DDOE is installing:

  • Rain barrels to catch roof run off for other purposes (I use mine to water my lawn)
  • Rain gardens to let the earth soak up rainfall (mine will water my tree)
  • Trees to absorb rainfall and reduce heat-island effect
  • Permeable hardscapes to reduce storm drain runoff.

I signed up for three of these, which will work together in a self-watering system that will reduce my roof runoff and power a beautiful back yard. My rain barrel will catch the first 130 gallons of rainfall. After that is full, the rest of my roof runoff will go into the rain garden, which leads to the base of my tree. The tree will be watered by the rain garden – hence the reason I chose a river birch as my tree.

I’ve actually got a Betula Nigra “Dura Heat” river birch from the city, and the process could not have been easier:

  1. I signed up for the RiverSmart program online and then a DDOE staff came out and looked at my yard, approving me for all three things I wanted
  2. Last summer, they installed my rain barrel – connecting it to my downspout and everything
  3. This spring, they planted my tree – even putting on the top coat of mulch.
  4. Next, I’ll get a rain garden – installed by professionals as I watch

Now I do have to be honest – the tree wasn’t exactly free. I paid $50 for the tree, $30 for the rain barrel, and $100 for the rain garden. But compared to the retail price of each ($300 for barrel, $500 for tree, $1,000+ for rain garden), its close enough to free for me.

And for you – if you’re a homeowner in the District of Columbia, sign up for your RiverSmart home today!