TreeKeepers get hands on experience in Mount Vernon

As part of the Baltimore TreeKeepers program, participants are expected to complete hands-on activities to supplement the lecture series and apply what they’ve learned. Spring (and fall) is tree-planting season, so TreeKeepers were given a long list of activities to choose from.  I opted for a treeplanting in historic Mount Vernon, the cultural district of Baltimore City and brought my mom along. She was my partner-in-crime for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Voices program years ago when we racked up over 40 hours of tree planting apiece in one summer.

DSC_4715We were running late that morning (I’ll blame my 2 year old for that), and I slid into a parking space on N. Charles Street just as the group of volunteers was heading towards the first tree pit for a demonstration. Thrilled at my luck at finding the perfect spot without having to circle the block, we quickly gathered our gloves and water bottles and headed down the street after them. We did NOT pay the parking meter…. rookie mistake for a 6-year city resident! Not only did I increase the tree canopy by 4 trees that day, I also added $32 to the City’s bottom line.

But I digress.  We caught up to the group and found a vantage point from which to watch the demonstration, which was not only in the sun (good score on a chilly day) but also happened to be nearly in the traffic lane.  At one point, a police car cruised by and slowed to see what the gaggle of folks in the street was all gathered around, then sped off when it became clear we were only watching two guys wrestle a very large tree into the ground.  Mom and I marveled at how different this was from the plantings we’ve done together in the past – usually on a farm, maybe streamside, often smelling the dairy-air. I always enjoyed those long car rides to spend the morning in the country, but thought – I’ll never see this place again! It was even more rewarding to be planting trees in Charm City where I will see the impact of our work on a regular basis.

DSC_4753They split us into teams, gave us a wheeled trash can full of tools and supplies (brilliant!!) and a list of addresses. Off we went, six of us on Team 3, in search of our trees which had been delivered ahead of time to each tree pit. Some were easy to dig, others were full of bricks and old tree roots that required a pickaxe to break through (Alice was our go-to for that, her pick-axe skills are second to none!). All of the trees were in burlap bags with a wire cage around the rootball, which was a new method for me – I’d only planted potted trees prior to that. After getting the massive rootball into the hole, you use clippers to remove as much of the wire and burlap as you can. There’s a pretty good chance some of it will be left in the hole – pinned by the weight of the tree – and that’s ok. The burlap will decompose and the roots will find their way through the wire.

DSC_4757There’s lots of room for variation when planting a tree, and so different groups may have different best practices. For instance, during TreeKeepers 102 the City Forestry division advised against using special soil or soil conditioners (typically mixed 50/50 with the native soil to add nutrients), saying there isn’t proof that it’s necessary for the health of the tree. But when I saw people dumping straight soil conditioner into the tree pits they had just dug, saying “let’s use the good soil first!” I kept my mouth shut in the interest of avoiding that awkward “you’re doing it wrong” moment. I’m still torn as to whether that was the right choice. One of the ultimate goals of the TreeKeeper program is that you will be qualified to lead volunteers in a tree-planting, so in that sense I should be comfortable in sharing what I’ve learned…and I have no problem telling my husband to mix the store-bought soil with native and not pour it straight in! But, this wasn’t my tree-planting group to lead and the soil conditioner isn’t harmful – just probably unnecessary and a little wasteful to use it pure, without even mixing into the soil. Would you have said something?

DSC_4706Team 3 was an efficient treeplanting machine – we rocked our way through our assigned trees early and had time to help another crew finish up their last two trees before we headed out at the end of our ‘shift.’ The Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association had another group of volunteers coming out in the afternoon to plant a second round of trees. Over 30 people helped plant 32 trees that day – pretty good for a day’s work! Once the trees are in the ground, staked and mulched, the next step is keeping them watered. We placed an eye-catching ‘Water Me!’ tag on each tree that briefly described what kind of care the tree needed after planting. Our crew leader said it was common in that neighborhood for residents to adopt the tree in front of their house and water it on a regular basis, which is essential while they are getting established.

The next level training course is TreeKeepers 201: Advanced Training for Tree Planting Leader Certification. And the first two courses of the TreeKeepers series (TreeKeepers 101 – Trees and Baltimore; and Treekeepers 102 – Science of Trees) are being offered for a second time in September. If you are a Baltimore City resident who wants to learn more about trees, how to care for them, and how to lead volunteer groups for tree plantings, check out the Baltimore Tree Trust website and register for this free training program!


All images by Suzanne Kashnow

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