We Give Thanks for Planting Trees!

Tree Steward Eileen Grant and a family of four who live nearby plant a tree in then Ben Brenman Park meadow. Tree Steward Eileen Grant learns that this family, planting a White oak (Quercus alba) in Ben Brenman Park’s meadow Saturday, lives just across the street and can watch their tree grow.

Tree Stewards are giving thanks for their many tree-planting opportunities this fall provided by their great municipal partners. We could not have planted 600 new trees in Arlington and Alexandria without our extraordinary trainees and volunteers, our newfound Marymount University environmental studies friends, the Arlington Regional Master Naturalists, Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia, church groups, and most important, nearby neighbors.

More than 30 hardy volunteers turned out on a blustery morning Saturday, Nov. 17, to plant 53 trees in Alexandria’s Ben Brenman Park, and they finished with kudos for their expertise and just in time for pizza.

Tree Steward Bonnie Petry, who has a Parknership with the city’s Department of Recreation, Parks, and Cultural Activities, turned out the volunteer planters, and the city paid for and delivered the trees for the three-hour session all over the expansive park.
Tree Stewards, their trainees, and nearby neighbors dug into the park’s fabulous new meadow near Duke Street, along the park’s network of paved areas, behind sports fields, and near two waterways: Holmes Run and Backlick Run. Their goal was to add trees to provide welcome shade in hotter months, particularly along the scorching pavement; give nature a chance to form a food web in the meadow; and to let trees soak up torrential rains near the streams.

Alexandria Natural Resources Manager Bob Williams welcomes volunteers to Ben Brenman Park. Alexandria Natural Resources Manager Bob Williams welcomes volunteers to Ben Brenman Park.

Natural Resources Manager Bob Williams welcomed the group and explained the vision of bringing nature back to an area that is sandwiched between two important streams where the city has been working to remove invasive plants that provide no food—mainly caterpillars and insects—for birds raising their young.

“That’s why we’re planting native trees,” Petry said before whacking the turf with a mattock to demonstrate a speedy and effective planting technique. “Native trees provide food for pollinators, caterpillars and moth larva that help all the birds feed their young. It just makes sense to do this.”

Tree Steward Bonnie Petry prepares to demonstrate tree-planting techniques. Tree Steward Bonnie Petry prepares to demonstrate tree-planting techniques.

It may have been a cold morning, but volunteers warmed to the chance to learn tree planting, help the environment, and provide a measure of their own lives. One family of four from Cameron Station, an enclave of lovely townhouses west of the park, turned out to plant a tree they plan to visit in the decades to come. “We live just over there,” they told Tree Steward Eileen Grant, who was monitoring planting progress, answering questions, and providing inspiration. The two young daughters named their first tree, a White oak (Quercus alba), and every other tree they and their dad planted Saturday.

When you name your tree, you establish a bond with it. Trees definitely are not inanimate, but they may seem so when they’re mere sticks atop a tangle of roots as fine as hair.
Those were the trees other Tree Stewards and their eager volunteers planted in two 3-hour sessions on Wednesday, Nov. 14, and Friday, Nov. 16, in Arlington’s Benjamin Banneker Park, which is at the southwestern tip of Arlington elbowing into Falls Church. It even has a Boundary Stone, SW 9, indicating its place along what once was the District of Columbia’s outer perimeter.

Stewards and Master Gardeners planted trees in Benjamin Banneker Park. Volunteers from Marymount University, Tree Stewards and Master Gardeners planted trees in Benjamin Banneker Park. The popular dog park is in the background.
The saplings they planted are shielded by plastic jackets that should deter damage from white-tail deer, rabbits and other critters as the trees grow. The saplings they planted are shielded by plastic jackets that should deter damage from white-tail deer, rabbits and other critters as the trees grow.

Today, the park is in constant use, owing to its juxtaposition to Four Mile Run and the adjacent paved trails that link to the W&OD Trail, the Falls Church City Trail, the Four Mile Run Trail, the John Marshall Trail and the Custis Trail. It’s not far from the East Falls Church Metro Station. And it has a very popular dog park. Plus a turf soccer field, where reservations are mandatory.

As a relative novice but ambitious Tree Steward, I leapt at the chance to plant “bare-root” native trees in lower Bluemont Park and in Benjamin Banneker Park. Our trainees needed planting venues, and I was determined to find several. So I signed us up for all of them. Then I learned from Andrew Knapik, Arlington Urban Forestry’s tree planting coordinator, that meant planting nearly 900 bare-root trees.

These bare-root trees may have pencil-thin trunks, but they have the root systems of trees that had been blissfully expanding in luxurious surroundings. They required digging holes as large as one might for a much larger container-grown tree, but their root systems were bare, making return of soil to planting hole a delicate operation. Well, after the first few dozen, it was tempting to just toss in the clods of clay. But that would have been wrong. So everyone crumbled the earth until it gave up peds and voids, our homage to Soils instructor Dan Schwartz. We were calling your name, Dan.

jackets that will protect them from drying wind and hungry wildlife. Saplings will spend the winter wrapped in plastic jackets to protect them from wind and wildlife.

Our goal was to plant 600 saplings in Benjamin Banneker Park, but we only reached a third of our goal, at best. We more likely planted 250 over two days with 20 volunteers, or 60 volunteer hours. It was a humbling experience, but we’re happy to have accomplished as much as we did. We had lots of help from environmental science students of Prof. Bonnie Burgess at Marymount University, and we hope they and other university students will join us at future planting expeditions in Northern Virginia.

In October, Tree Stewards and Master Naturalists oversaw the planting of 300 container-grown trees in Arlington’s Bon Air Park to help mitigate damage cause by summer flooding. Those trees are thriving after around 50 volunteers from a church group spent three hours digging and planting where Knapik had used flags to mark a native tree species for each spot. That experience encouraged us to tackle the Banneker planting, but we fell short in gathering enough weekday volunteers for the task. Ultimately, a lack of sufficient hands caused cancellation of the Bluemont planting. Next time, we’ll be smarter about attracting volunteers and will schedule plantings on weekends too.

This week, all Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria will be giving thanks for our extraordinary volunteers, our amazing municipal partners, our transitioning parks, and our many opportunities to enhance our environment by planting trees native to our area and crucial for the wildlife that depend on those trees.

—Jo Allen

About TreeStewards

TreeStewards of Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia, are trained volunteers who work to protect, preserve, and enhance urban tree canopy through public education and volunteer activities such as planting, pruning, and caring for trees.
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