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One man's volunteer effort to plant trees in San Francisco

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Neighbors and volunteers had been asked to meet at 9 a.m. Like clockwork, a few minutes before 9, up the block chugs Starbuck, toting his little black satchel of tools, his clippers in a holster hanging from his belt. He's come from across town, courtesy of a city bus. Since moving to the city, he's never owned a car.

For all its charm, San Francisco is not particularly leafy. A 2006 study by the US Forest Service found that about 12 percent of the city is covered by trees. In contrast, trees cover nearly 29 percent of Washington D.C., 22 percent of Boston, and 21 percent of New York.

Sandy soil, salty air, lots of wind, and narrow streets are common explanations for San Francisco's low tree count.

For nearly three decades, Starbuck has been on a mission to change that.

The average tree planting is 30 trees per outing, though 60- and even 90-tree plantings occur from time to time. Starbuck acts as a guide and teacher to the home-owners and volunteers. As he works, he likes to talk about – what else, trees.

"My current favorite is the strawberry tree," he offers. Tree experts here are constantly on the look out for species that can handle the local climate. The strawberry tree, with its mock red fruit that hangs in draping clusters, is in high demand. "They're hard to find right now because of the popularity," says FUF planting manager Heidi Lakics.

Care is relatively simple. Most of San Francisco has sandy soil, so it is almost impossible to overwater the trees, Starbuck says. Just before a sapling goes in the ground, Starbuck uses a box cutter to make vertical slices down each side of the root ball so the roots don't continue to grow in a circular fashion, as they do in their container.

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