By Pam Quanrud, Extension Master Gardener
Two years ago, just as COVID-19 roared in to disrupt our lives, Alicia Martini and I launched Small Trees Make Big Canopies as an intern project, hoping it would get us across the finish line to become Extension Master Gardeners.
Two years in as Master Gardeners, we are happy to report that the Small Trees Make Big Canopies Program has also successfully transitioned to a permanent program of VCE/Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia, joining such illustrious efforts as the Sunny and Shade Gardens, the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden and so many others that qualify for Master Gardener volunteer hours.
We are looking to add to our volunteer group, so please read on.
As some may recall, our program stems from a simple idea: We harvest small saplings from yards in the region, pot them, stabilize them and then give them away to someone to plant in their yard. Alicia and I, like so many others, are concerned that our region’s tree canopy is shrinking fast as our largest trees fall victim to age, redevelopment, poor pruning practices around power lines, and prolonged periods of drought and record high flash rainfalls.
Luckily, many people want to replant, but the instinct to plant a larger-sized specimen tree can lead to disappointing results. Larger nursery trees need extensive root trimming to be portable enough to sell, and their new owners often fail to give them enough water in their first year to survive.
Smaller trees, whose root balls are no bigger than a 1- to 5-gallon pot, are easier to plant, easier to maintain to the point where they have stabilized in their new homes, and can thrive and grow faster since they do not suffer from the shock of root pruning. They easily compensate for their small initial size within a few years.
We fill a niche in the system, below the highly successful free tree program run by Arlington County in partnership with EcoAction Arlington.
We are so grateful to everyone who has donated a tree to our program and everyone who has taken one of our free trees home and planted it in their yard. Since its inception in the fall of 2019, when we had our first tree “harvests,” the program has grown enormously. Alicia and I now have more than 800 saplings in our “Free Tree” nursery. We started giving away trees in the spring of 2019 in the midst of the first COVID scare using contactless pick up and on-line ordering. Since we started, we have given away more than 450 saplings to more than 240 households. Our goal is to give away 300 trees every year.
As part of our program, we also collect contact information from the individuals who take home our free trees, mostly so we can send them gentle reminders to water during droughts and help them prepare for unexpected difficulties, like cicadas. Last fall, we asked individuals who had taken home trees in the “Class of 2020” how the little guys were doing. The responses were as simple as “everything ok!” to detailed stories of harrowing small-tree encounters with puppy dogs, foxes, and lawn mowers. Most ended with the tree surviving the ordeal after some horticultural first aid. Whew. Some wrote that their little tree for one reason or another had not made it, and for them we offered free replacements. Many sent pictures, and we include them here.
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Alicia and I are proud of all our little trees and their new families, but I confess I’m particularly pleased with two trees in the Class of 2020.The first went to the home of one of our biggest contributors (tree contributors, that is). One of my neighbors has a beautiful garden with a healthy grove of paw paws that harvest every fall and spring. This neighbor took one of our redbud saplings in 2020, and it is thriving in a corner of his beautiful yard.
The other tree I keep an eye on was planted in the front yard of another neighbor, and I go by it almost every day. It is a lovely willow oak that started in my yard under the 100-foot spread of my own majestic willow oak. Junior, I am happy to report, is thriving, and after two years in the ground is almost as tall as I am. I could not be prouder.
We are grateful to the volunteers who help us harvest, pot, and give away trees, and we are looking to grow our volunteer group. We are active in April and May and then again in October and November (the summer is too hot to harvest or plant young trees). Look for opportunities to volunteer on the EMGNV calendar and please sign up! Our 2022 work parties are on:
- 23 –10 a.m. to 3 p.m. – Tree giveaway at Glencarlyn Library Community Garden Spring Celebration, 300 South Kensington Street, Arlington, VA
- 30 – 9 a.m. to noon – Tree giveaway at 4436 North 16th St. North, Arlington
- 30 – 3 to 6 p.m. – Tree giveaway at Cherrydale Garden Club, Oak Grove Park, 4012 North 17th Street, Arlington
- 7 – 9 a.m. to noon – Tree giveaway at 855 North Larrimore St., Arlington
- 14 – 10 a.m. to noon – Work party at 855 North Larrimore St., Arlington
- 4 – 10 a.m. to noon – Work party at 855 North Larrimore St., Arlington
July and August
- No scheduled activities
- 17 – 10 a.m. to noon – Work party at 4436 North 16th St., Arlington
- 1 – Tree giveaway events at both 4436 North 16th St. and 855 North Larrimore St., Arlington
- 22 – 10 a.m. to noon – Work party at 855 North Larrimore St., Arlington