Last October New York City completed an effort to plant a million new trees. It took eight years.

One was planted in front of my house.

I called 311, the city’s all-purpose complaint and service hot line, and asked for a tree. About a year later it arrived.

Some workers came during the day while I was at work. When I got home it was planted, staked by two poles and surrounded by wood chips. It sported a tag identifying it as “one in a million.”

The city sent me an email congratulating me. The message recommended that I water the tree regularly and install a guard rail to improve the health and extend the life of the tree.

I had seen guard rails on other trees and they seemed like a good idea. I was disheartened to discover that installing the gate would be complicated and alarmingly expensive.

First off all you need a permit. Second, you need to meet the requirements. Tree guards have to be “three-sided, at least 18 inches tall, installed on the outer perimeter of the tree bed, and positioned at least one foot short of the curb.”

The strict regulations explain why the majority of trees in New York don’t have guard rails. People just cannot be bothered.

And then there is the cost. A rail runs between $550 and $999.

Sidewalk trees have a tough time of it, with an average life expectancy of less than 10 years. By contrast a tree planted in a suburban lawn can live 40 to 50 years. Trees live as long as 100 in the forest.

It seems like a metaphor for modern life that the guard needed to protect the tree costs two or three times as much as the tree itself.

It seems like a metaphor for life in America that we plant trees without the rails to protect them. We seem to be telling our trees: You have to make it on your own.

Many of the tree guards you do see are makeshift affairs, clearly in violation of the statute. The variety could fill a Dr. Seuss book.

Some are too tall

Some are too small

Some are like castles

Some are wooden boxes

Getting a tree has made me more aware of trees. Its like when you have children and then you notice everyone has kids.

One of the immediate things you realize is that some of the tree pits are cared for and others are not.

And there doesn’t seem to be any geographic pattern. You can find well-tended trees in poor areas of Harlem and trees covered in weeds in swank parts of the Upper West Side.

It depends on people. And whether those people go out of their way to put up the guards, plant flowers and water the trees.

You can walk down a block and come across a lovely patch like this:

And find the next block looks like this:

There are a few tree pits that are over the top extravagant, like those suburban houses that get all decked out in Christmas tree lights.

But the vast majority appear abandoned to the elements. According to Curb Allure, a private firm, only about 10 percent of city trees have guards.

Walking around it becomes clear that the trees are a visual marker for the people that live nearby and a sign of how much they care.

They are also an indication of how much of an impact we can have, making a difference a few square feet at a time.

**Published by Ted Merz Jun 18, 2016 **