Speaking for the trees: Village Hill group wants to save city greenery

  • ”Tree volcanoes” bury the root flares on a row of trees along Moser Street in the Village Hill community.  —SARAH ROBERTSON

  • In 2013, eight trees along Moser Street were replaced for not meeting the city’s planting guidelines. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Adventitious roots grow from the base of a tree in Village Hill.  —SARAH ROBERTSON

  • From left, Linda Eichengreen, Mindy Theroux, Rob Postel and Pat Alsin work at the base of a newly planted tree at Village Hill Northampton on a mild October day.  GAZETTE/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Adventitious roots and bits of a burlap bag are revealed by the removal of a so-called “tree volcano.” SARAH ROBERTSON

  • From left, Pat Alsin, Mindy Theroux, Linda Eichengreen and Rob Postel work at the base of a newly planted tree at the Village Hill community in Northampton on a mild October day. They had removed a tree volcano and were pruning adventitious roots the mulch had encouraged to grow. GAZETTE/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • From left, Mindy Theroux, Pat Alsin, Rob Postel and Linda Eichengreen work at the base of a newly planted tree at the Village Hill community in Northampton on a mild October day. They had removed a tree volcano, a pile of mulch at the tree’s base, and had pruned adventitious roots the mulch had encouraged to grow. SARAH ROBERTSON

  • From left, Mindy Theroux, Pat Alsin, Rob Postel and Linda Eichengreen work at the base of a newly planted tree at the Village Hill community in Northampton on a mild October day. They had removed a tree volcano, a pile of mulch at the tree’s base, and had pruned adventitious roots the mulch had encouraged to grow. GAZETTE/SARAH ROBERTSON

Published: 11/14/2017 10:42:41 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A volunteer effort is underway in the Village Hill community to save young trees being improperly planted around the new development.

Working in small teams on weekends and afternoons, the Village Hill Tree Lovers have helped 78 trees since the effort began. The group of neighbors got together in August and, after training by Richard Parasiliti, Northampton’s tree warden, have been tending public trees in the community.

“You have public citizenry that is helping to bolster the ranks of what the municipal government is trying to do,” Parasiliti said. “It’s really amazing, actually.”

About 9,400 trees were counted during Northampton’s 2016 tree inventory, according to Parsiliti, and more have been planted since.

The Village Hill Tree Lovers, a group of about 40 neighbors, are supported by Tree Northampton, the Public Shade Tree Commission and the city.

Tackling tree volcanoes

The Village Hill community is a 126-acre community planned and funded by MassDevelopment on the former site of the Northampton State Hospital. The Village Hill group’s first challenge was to dig up harmful “tree volcanoes,” to give the trees a better chance at long life.

“It’s established that this is a harmful practice, but it’s standard in the industry,” said Rob Postel of the volcanoes. Postel is a member of the city’s Public Shade Tree Commission and volunteers with Tree Northampton.

A tree volcano is a pile of bark mulch placed at the foot of a young tree, burying its base. The intent is to ward off weeds and give the ground around the tree a finished look, Postel said.

However, a volcano invites the tree to spawn roots that grow up instead of down. Called “adventitious roots,” if left to grow, the roots can strangle and kill a tree in 10 to 15 years, Postel said.

“It’s a huge waste of resources,” said Mindy Theroux, a Village Hill resident and Tree Lovers volunteer, speaking of the volcanoes of mulch. “And it’s killing the trees.”

Parasiliti agreed.

“It’s important to catch it in the beginning to make sure the trees are planted properly because if a tree is not planted properly you essentially cut its life in half,” Parasiliti said.

Root cause

The volcanoes at Village Hill asks two questions: who planted the trees and buried their bases in mulch, and why?

MassDevelopment, the quasi-governmental agency that is developing Village Hill, hired the contractors who designed and constructed its infrastructure. The trees in question were planted as part of four different road contracts with the city between 2004 and 2012, according to Carolyn Misch, the senior land use planner for the city’s Planning and Sustainability Office.

Misch says it is the developer’s responsibility to ensure everything is installed according to state and city guidelines, then write an inspection report. The city’s Planning Board reviews and approves the inspection reports before a new street is turned into a public way.

“The planting detail is very specific and meets our standards and is not what was installed,” said Misch in an email. “The landscaper doesn’t follow the detail sheets approved by the Board, they just plant the way they have always planted.”

According to Elizabeth Murphy, vice president of real estate development for MassDevelopment, the four companies hired to build the roads and plant the adjacent trees were Gagliarducci Construction of Springfield, Gomes Construction of Ludlow, Caracas Construction of Ludlow and Mass-West Construction of Granby. But representatives from MassDevelopment could not name the landscape companies that planted the trees, as work is often done by subcontractors.

“Contractors planted the trees according to the city’s approved plans and specifications,” MassDevelopment spokeswoman Kelsey Abbruzzese said in a statement. “MassDevelopment’s on-site engineer inspected the trees as they were being planted to ensure that the trees were healthy and planted correctly.”

In 2013, however, about eight trees on the west side of Moser Street inside Village Hill failed to pass city inspection by a hired arborist one year after planting. According to Abbruzzese, Caracas Construction was the road contractor hired to plant the trees and guarantee them. They replaced the unhealthy trees at the city’s request and the job was accepted within a year of planting.

Caracas Construction declined the Gazette’s request for comment.

Future growth

“We now have a Tree Warden who is available and has the expertise to make some of these checks,” Misch wrote in an email explaining the city’s approval process. “So, moving forward, I hope that we have additional capacity to check the checkers (engineers who are certifying projects).”

“It’s not important to focus on who screwed up, but how we are going to fix it moving forward,” said Parasiliti.

Postel assures that the city is aware of the harmful effects of “tree volcanoes” and does not plant trees using too much mulch.

“We’ve gone from like zero to 60 with the tree program in three years in ways that it takes communities 10 or 15 years,” Parasiliti said. “There is a lot of movement in the right direction for folks who really care about the city’s trees, which for me is amazing. I’ve worked for DPW for a long time and we have not seen this level of commitment before from these private organizations or from the mayor and the City Council.”

“The whole tree program is a community-based program,” said Postel. “Volunteer participation is a key part of it.”

In August, Parasiliti met with Village Hill Tree Lovers to train them on the proper techniques for digging up tree volcanoes and pruning trees. Knowing what is OK to trim, and what isn’t, is vital.

Volunteers are trained to dig up excess mulch, trim adventitious roots and look for other problems. Sometimes they find young trees planted so hastily that the wire cages and burlap sacks they are shipped in are buried around the roots.

“You have to make sure you do follow-up and do spot checks to make sure these trees are planted properly, and that’s where education plays in,” Parasiliti said.

Last month, the Village Hill group met for its 12th and final tree volcano session of the season. Now they’re shifting their focus to pruning.

“We hope to inspire others and bring attention to the needs of trees, and hope to alert more landscapers about their poor practices,” Theroux said. “I’m not an expert on this, but I learned a lot just by loving the trees in the area.”

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com
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