People, Plants, and Cities Interview with Ellyn Shea, ISA

Today’s post is an interview with Ellyn Shea, garden coach, arborist, horticultural educator and researcher, and frequent contributor to this blog. In addition to 15 years of professional and personal gardening, Ellyn was Planting Manager and later director of the Tree Care program at Friends of the Urban Forest, a San Francisco non-profit that promotes local urban forestry through community planting, tree care, education, and advocacy. She has a wide range of experience with volunteers and citizens alike, helping people and communities find solutions to horticultural problems, and develop a better understanding of the plant life on their streets and in their yards.  – NK

You’ve trained hundreds of volunteers in planting and pruning, and advised thousands of citizens on tree and horticulture issues – what are some of the common traits you’ve noticed among people seeking to learn more about trees and horticulture? 

I think many people choose to study horticulture because they like plants more than people – but soon discover after some time in the field that people are very much a part of the job. People have needs that they want plants to fulfill – to screen an unwanted view, to honor a loved one, to proclaim their status in the world – so we have to understand both people and plants to be successful.

What trees were a part of your childhood experience?

In our backyard in Connecticut we had several large trees – a walnut and a catalpa, but I liked the dogwood tree the best because it was small, on a child’s scale. I felt more able to relate to it as a living being.

Ellyn and the ArborTie!_Martha Ozonoff

Ellyn staking a tree. Photo courtesy of Martha Ozonoff.

Ellyn Plum Tree 1

A plum tree with a gator bag. Photo courtesy of Ellyn Shea.

You have a great deal of experience with early tree care – what are some of the greatest challenges to young trees in the urban environment that you’ve seen over the years?

Lack of water and vandalism are definitely big problems, but if the young tree survives those challenges then malpruning is a problem. People want to save money so they hire an unskilled pruner, or try to do it themselves. Although not ideal, benign neglect would be preferable in some ways.

What are some of the key reasons (in your opinion) for a landscape design professional to learn more about arboriculture? What are the professional as well as the personal benefits for this knowledge/experience?

Landscape design professionals choose trees for a site, write planting specifications, and design around existing trees. These are all tasks that an arborist should get involved in. If not, then the design professional should have arboricultural training and experience. The new trees will perform better and the existing trees will have a better chance of surviving construction impacts.

Ellyn Plum Tree 2

A staked plum tree. Photo courtesy of Ellyn Shea.


A row of street trees in San Francisco. Image courtesy of Friends of the Urban Forest.

In your role as Tree Care Coordinator for Friends of the Urban Forest, you were (among other roles) involved in advising the public as well as organizing tree care workdays. Could you say more about these programs and the work you did there?

It is problematic for an agency or nonprofit to focus only on tree planting without a comprehensive tree care program, so I’m proud to have expanded and improved the tree care program while I worked there. At that time (2001-2007), we grew to have (I think) one of the more complete tree care programs in the country, compared to other nonprofits. We visited each young tree (planted by FUF) at least 3 times in the first 3 years, with an option for additional visits up to 5 years. Both scheduled and on-call visits were available, as well as spontaneous acts of tree kindness. Pruning workshops were held at places that would not be visited by FUF for whatever reason – older trees, not planted by FUF, etc. These workshops got additional trees some care.

At FUF, you were also involved in training volunteers and leading educational workshops. What was your teaching methodology in these roles, and did you notice any changes in your student body over the years?

Mostly, we taught by providing a guided work experience. The hope was to spend a certain amount of time training up front so that the trained volunteers could then act somewhat independently and increase our productivity (number of trees pruned or planted for example). Planting volunteers tend to come out because it is their neighborhood and tree care volunteers because they like the work, wherever it might happen to be. This had not fundamentally changed since the first tree care coordinator’s experience in the 1980s when FUF started out. I suspect it is still the same. When I was there, I targeted horticulture students to become long-term volunteers (interns) to provide them with unique work experience they could not get elsewhere. The student intern program was successful and many of its alumni went on to run their own businesses or work for a municipality.


Tree care volunteers prune a street tree. Image courtesy of Friends of the Urban Forest.

Could you comment more broadly on the changes you have seen in arboriculture and urban forestry in the 15+ years you’ve been working in these areas? Given the changes that you have seen, are you optimistic about the future of urban trees?

I like the increased awareness around inspecting and correcting for root defects, and proper watering using irrigation bags and DriWater. Opening up sidewalks to become gardens is also a positive trend. There is still a lot of shoddy planting and poor aftercare, but I think the general level of professionalism is increasing.

Imagine a municipal arborist for a huge city is having coffee with an municipal arborist for a small town, what are some of the things you could imagine them talking about, what could they learn from each other?

The city arborist would probably have more problems with vandalism and trash dumping; the small town arborist might know the people and their trees more individually. They would probably both complain that their respective budgets are too small and that they need more personnel to get their jobs done right.


Tree care volunteers transport job site materials in creative ways. Image courtesy of Friends of the Urban Forest.

Your articles for this blog frequently weave together history and horticulture with current news and policies to tell compelling stories in which the history of people, plants, and cities appear remarkably interdependent. Is this how you see the world? How do you get your ideas/do your research?

My approach to telling stories is influenced by my work on the streets with local communities. When I worked for Friends of the Urban Forest, I went to every neighborhood of San Francisco doing street tree planting or maintenance. This experience loaded me with memories that are very strongly linked to the places. I go down a block now and see: there’s a tree that fell in a storm and we put back up – there’s the house where the neighbor brought out food for the volunteers – there’s where the truck got a flat tire. It’s like an additional GPS layer on top of what is actually there – a tree, a house, a curb.

Most of my research is done online. I enjoy writing for blogs because they allow me to use hyperlinks within the article in order to cite sources. I love this because it is so much more accessible than academic footnotes or endnotes, the reader can go right to the source and learn more about the topic. Being an educator, I always keep an eye out for teachable moments that could be shared with others, and online writing makes this sharing much broader.

popofatticus / CC BY 2.0

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