Tree? Board? What’s Up? Planting and Saving Downtown Montpelier Trees

by Nat Frothingham

Montpelier resident Sarah Hoffmeier is cochair, along with John Snell, of the Montpelier Tree Board. In the following question-and-answer exchange with The Bridge, Hoffmeier discusses how she first got involved with the Tree Board, then goes on to describe what the Tree Board is, what it does and some of the successes of what she feels is a very “cool” local organization.

Please tell us about your first experience with the Montpelier Tree Board.

When I first moved to Montpelier four years ago, I wanted to get involved in the community and was interested in what the Tree Board was doing. After attending one meeting, I knew it was the group for me. The members were so welcoming, and what they were doing for the city was something I wanted to be a part of. I volunteered for a year, and then there was an opening, so I asked if I could join. I was appointed to the board three years ago. John Snell and I are the current cochairs.

What is the Tree Board?

It’s a volunteer group that was first created by the city in 1993 to protect the public health and welfare by improving and preserving the beauty of the city as it relates to street trees and park trees. The board organizes tree plantings, free educational workshops and the maintenance of trees among other community projects.

The Tree Board serves an important role, especially for the downtown. Many people are unaware of the amount of work needed to keep the downtown trees healthy—or even just alive! Most street trees struggle to survive with limited soil and water, while contending with extreme heat, sidewalk salt and vandalism. The downtown trees take many hours of maintenance each year—pruning, watering, composting, mulching and grate and guard repairs.

Someone we couldn’t operate without is Geoff Beyer. He’s the city tree warden and sits on the Tree Board. And he’s also a presence on the Conservation Commission.

Geoff’s been fantastic. He is definitely our liaison with the Public Works Department, which does everything from sidewalk plowing to helping us with many heavy equipment issues. Geoff, his crew and his AmeriCorps volunteers provide us with manpower for many of our maintenance and pruning work days. Geoff has also led the effort in getting Montpelier High School students to build wooden tree guards, which protect the downtown trees. Geoff organized the plan and taught them how to do it. It’s great to have the next generation invested in the city.

How do you get on the Tree Board?

City Council appoints the Tree Board members. Everyone on the Tree Board has a three-year term and can then get reappointed. We have official meetings on the first Thursday of every month at 5:30 p.m. in the Memorial Room in city hall. All meetings are open to the public. That’s when we brainstorm and tackle any tree-related problems.

I understand you have a tree nursery. Tell me about that.

The tree nursery was created by longtime state forester and [Vermont Department of] Forest, Parks and Recreation official and board member Norm Hudson. It’s located at North Branch Nature Center just behind the community garden. We have approximately 90 trees that are available for us to plant around the city as needed. Some of these are used to replace existing trees that have died or are in decline, and some are part of our initiative to plant more trees in our “urban forest.” We’ve also had several workshops at the nursery to teach people about planting, pruning, transplanting.

Why do trees fail?

Many reasons. The main reason downtown trees fail is that the tree wells are limited. Most tree wells measure three feet by three feet. That’s just six to nine cubic feet of soil, and the quality of the soil, given that most of it is not native, varies widely and is often quite poor. The trees need to be watered frequently: spring, summer and fall. We have a dedicated watering crew—Abby Colihan, Jennifer and Lauren Grant, Carole Naquin, John Snell, myself and John Van Deren all volunteer their time to water trees two or three times a week during dry spells. We couldn’t do it without them!

Salt is an issue as well. We know it’s important to keep the sidewalks safe for people in the winter, but the salt used isn’t very healthy for the trees. Every spring each tree should have the top two or three inches of soil removed and replaced to eliminate all salt residue from the tree wells. It’s a big task, so we don’t always accomplish this.

Another problem, particularly on the south side of State Street, is shade. The trees along this stretch don’t get enough sun. It’s hard to find trees that like shade and also do well as street trees.

Pests and diseases can be problems too. Take for example the emerald ash borer. It’s on the way and will affect our beautiful large green ash trees. Last summer we marked all the ash with purple ribbon and signs to make clear how vulnerable we are to their loss. The borer is not here yet but could be soon.

Finally, a few other things that contribute to trees failing are vandalism, accidents and dogs. People staple signs onto trees, carve into their bark or think it’s cool to hang from a tree that can’t support that kind of weight. Lots of little damages add up. Dogs urinating on trees can cause problems too. With such limited soil, trees can be affected by the amount of phosphorus found in urine. It’s definitely not adding to the health of the tree to have dogs peeing on them.

You think it’s cool to be on the Tree Board?

It is cool to be on the Tree Board! The board is made up of friendly wonderful Montpelierites. Many people have served on the Tree Board for a long, long time. It’s a great group to be a part of. We get things done by working together. We have people volunteering who range in age from 7 to 87. Over the past year, Tree Board volunteers gave more than 1,500 hours of service. And we had fun doing it. Look at the tremendous value and cost savings to the city. People love living here. They love trees.

Tell me about your Tree Board T-shirt.

The design was created by Tree Board member Carol Naquin. She’s a graphic designer. She designed the logo. It says “Montpelier Tree Board: Taking Root in Montpelier.” Volunteers earn a T-shirt once they do 10 hours of service. We have white shirts with a green logo or dark green shirts with a white logo.

We welcome anyone interested to come to a meeting to find out more. If you can’t make it to a meeting, just e-mail or phone John Snell or me. Our contact information is on the city of Montpelier’s website: montpelier-vt.org/group/67/tree-board.html. Or you can just Google “Tree Board Montpelier Vermont,” the Tree Board web page will come right up.

Anything else?

Yes, I want readers to know that the city of Montpelier has held the Tree City USA award for the past 10 years. It’s great.

Also, the city of Montpelier was recently recognized by the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Council for the Community Tree Stewards Award. We had a reception at the State House with Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, along with the other winners in other categories. It’s a real honor that we’ve been recognized for our work.

Many people who live in Montpelier love our trees. But they may know nothing about the Tree Board. We are available to anyone in town who wants advice on trees and would be happy to meet with people to talk about tree species or tree placement and maintenance. Over the years, we’ve seen so many examples of the wrong tree planted in the wrong place or a good tree poorly maintained. We want to help folks get it right. We realize the importance of educating the public to keep our trees healthy for many years to come.