Trees Taking Root in Ben Brenman Park

Photo showing a newly planted tree. The tree is attached to two stakes, has a deer protector around the base, and mulch on the ground.

Text and Images by Devin Reese 

Photo of volunteers standing in a circle watching two people demonstrate how to plant a tree.
Bonnie Petry demonstrating proper tree planting techniques.

 Recently I participated as an ARMN volunteer for a tree planting event at the Ben Brenman Park in Alexandria. The event was hosted by the Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria. When I arrived, an impressively large group of volunteers was watching a tree planting demonstration. D.C. area native and former Coast Guard Officer Bonnie Petry described in meticulous detail how to put tree seedlings in the ground. Although everyone present may have privately thought, “I already know how to plant a tree,” her authority conveyed the loftier goal of giving the tree the best possible chance of survival at Ben Brenman Park. 

Photo zoomed in to show the root ball of a tree
Root ball of a black gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica) almost ready for planting.

Bonnie described the benefits of gravity for extracting a tree from its pot, a technique less damaging to the roots than the typical you-hold-the-pot-while-I-pull maneuver. She showed the simplest way to gauge the depth of the hole relative to the depth of the root mass using a horizontal stake to mark ground level and a vertical stake to estimate depth. “And you don’t want it to go too high or it can kill the tree,” she said. And then she had everyone laughing as she described how to spread the roots out “like in the old Bugs Bunny Cartoon.” 

Once we were briefed, the group split into teams of 2-4 people armed with shovels, pickaxes, stakes, mulch, and a tubular stake-driver tool. The event was made possible by the nonprofit, One Tree Planted, that pledges to plant a tree for every dollar donated. And the seedlings already sat perched in their designated planting spots, expectant. 

Photo of a volunteer bending over holding a pickaxe in a hole.
Amanda levering the pickaxe to carve out a hole.

The first step was starting the hole, which meant breaking through turf grass with a shovel or, preferably, a pickaxe. Many volunteers had no experience with pickaxing, which made for an exciting challenge. But some were naturals. Volunteer Amanda got right to work, planting her legs firmly and swinging the heavy tool. She aimed for the middle of the hole as she moved in a circle, pulling soil to the side with each swing. She was careful to pile all the soil in one mound, as learned from the demonstration. 

Photo shows one volunteer holding a tree steady while a second volunteer uses a pickaxe to break apart the root ball.
Will and Linda breaking up root mass.

Linda was also a natural with the pickaxe. Although she had never wielded one before, she swung it vigorously, explaining “I just do like the cheetah. I sprint then I poop out,” then passed the tool to fellow volunteer, Chantrel. From Washington State, Chantrel said that she had always loved helping the environment and participating in community events. This was her first pickaxing “rodeo,” but Linda cheered her on with “Yay, our hole is getting really big.” Then, Will and Linda came up with another use for the pickaxe: to break up the compacted roots at the base of their seedling. Along with his ARMN member wife, Carol, Will has attended lots of volunteer events, including stream monitoring and invasives removals.

Nearby, the Girl Scouts from St. Mary’s Troop 4215 worked hard, too. They were excited to be completing the last step to honor the annual World Thinking Day, which was focused on conservation this year. The task, for Girl Scouts and Girl Guides all over the world, was to plant a tree. The girls lowered the tree into the hole, tapped the soil on it, and stepped back to admire their work.

Phot of three volunteers. One volunteer has a shovel and two volunteers help shape the hole for the tree.
Amanda, Marcus, and Rose preparing the hole for a sweetgum seedling (Liquidambar styraciflua).

Meanwhile, said Volunteer Marcus of his friend, Rose, “When we watched the demo, Rose wanted to do the pickaxe thing … She’s just rockin’ it.” It turned out that Rose already had plenty of pickaxe experience from working along the Appalachian Trail. As she made headway, Rose switched to the shovel, and they all got their hands into the emerging hole to remove dirt. “I think we’re close, Marcus, let me know if there are rocks.” She, Marcus, and his wife, Amanda are a regular trio for hiking, playing sports, and visiting breweries. They like spending time in parks but have noticed how these have become degraded from human use. In this project, said Rose, “You can see the fruits of your labor,” as they gently lowered the tree into the new hole.

Nearby, a 7-year-old worked with his mom, who said it was not their first project either. When asked how he liked it, the boy first wrinkled his nose with “I don’t really like it,” but quickly changed his tune as he picked up the shovel and said, “I like digging with it … I watch a lot of digging videos of people building houses in the wild. And they dig it like this [kicking the shovel into the soil]. But for a shovel, they use spears to dig.” His mom, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in wildlife trafficking, explained that he had seen videos of native tribes putting trees into the ground, and that she and her son chose this project for the “love of the trees.”

Sergio removing dirt while sharing his enthusiasm for volunteering.

A young adult volunteer named Sergio extracted plastic webbing from the soil, likely the remains of structural material from turf grass planting. He had already gotten one tree in the ground and was eagerly working on another. “I found out about this on Eventbrite. I was just browsing for free opportunities. I work as an officer in commercial construction, but still don’t have enough chances to get my hands dirty. I’m tired of keyboarding and mousing!” Sergio said that he’s telling his friends about tree planting and other projects, spreading the word. Reflecting on a tree he planted in his dad’s yard when he was a Woodson High School student, he said, “It’s still there. It marks the time.”

There were also lots of seasoned Tree Stewards that day who put trees in the ground but also circulated to help others. Tom Arata is both an ARMN member (2017) and a tree steward (2020). Because his degree was in forestry, but his career as a computer programmer software analyst, the volunteering reconnected him with trees. Noreen Hannigan is a former Training Chair for ARMN who has been a member since 2015 and a Tree Steward since 2020. She added the Tree Steward membership into the mix to increase her knowledge of the “tree aspects” of the ecosystem. 

Photo of a volunteer using a metal tool to drive a stake into the ground next to a newly planted tree.
Lori driving a stake down with the tubular tool.

Lori Brent, a Tree Steward since Spring 2022, is a trainee in the current ARMN class. She had approached these memberships from a wild perspective, in keeping with her pagan religion. First, she managed her front yard as habitat, attracting box turtles, raccoons, possums, and even a screech owl. When she learned there was a way to physically help restore tree canopy, she couldn’t wait to participate on her way to becoming an ARMN member. “We need to bring the wild back,” she asserted while confidently pounding a stake into the ground next to a newly planted tree using the heavy steel stake-driver. 

Each planted tree got a trunk protector and two supporting stakes before it was watered. As it started to rain, the pace picked up so that all the trees would be safely nestled in soil. Said Lindsey, “We’d better hurry it up!” while she and another volunteer, James quickly tied stakes. They had found this tree-planting opportunity on Facebook, and it seemed like a fun thing to do together. “The stakes look pretty good,” said Lindsey, and James replied with “Sweet!” 

Photo of two volunteers tying black straps from a tree to two stakes on either side of the tree. A third volunteer looks on.
Lindsey and James tying tree to stakes as Noreen looks on.
Photo of a volunteer tying off a strap on a stake next to a newly planted tree.
Chantrel completing final step of tying stake.

And the watering was well planned, like the rest of the process. Explained leader Bonnie, “We’re not going to waterboard the tree. If it starts pooling and not going down, we’ll stop.” The Ben Brenman site was formerly a U.S. Army base since about 1942, for which the swampy land was infilled with 30 feet of materials. Thus, the substrate is quite compacted and is only gradually regaining a layer of topsoil. Still, says Bonnie, “Each tree just gets half a bag of mulch. We want it to be 3 to 4 inches deep and the soil should show through. Let it be fluffy!” Mulch should also not touch the bark; just surround the tree at least a few inches away from the tree itself.

Also participating that day was ARMN member, Mikki Atsatt, who became a member in Spring, 2022, Mikki had done a lot of volunteering already. He explained that he’s around ARMN people a lot now and always feels welcome, like “part of the family.” Although he works on invasive plant removal projects, too (which he finds “strangely satisfying”), Mike said “It’s so important to build back our canopy. I figured I’d better learn to plant trees. I want to learn how to plant instead of just pull.”

All the expectant seedlings made it into the ground that day, ready to provide shade, food, and shelter for years to come.

Photo showing a newly planted tree. The tree is attached to two stakes, has a deer protector around the base, and mulch
Tree planting completed!

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