April is the best gardening month of the year. Cherry blossoms, daffodils, tulips, and so much more pop up after the colder months of winter. It is the perfect time to plant seeds and start up plants you can enjoy all summer long.
It is also the month of two key national celebration days—Arbor Day and Earth Day. Earth Day always falls on April 22nd, and Arbor Day, celebrated on the last Friday of April, falls on April 28th this year. The Arbor Day Foundation is one of the largest membership groups of its kind.
Every day is Arbor Day at the DC-based foundation, Casey Trees. Started by the late philanthropist and longtime area resident Betty Brown Casey in 2002, the group’s mission is to restore, enhance and protect the tree canopy of the nation’s capital.
The city was designed by Pierre L’Enfant to have many tree-lined boulevards and green spaces, but over time the tree canopy has declined to just over 35 percent. Thanks to Betty Casey’s foresight, the city is working hard to plant more trees, and on April 22nd this year, Casey Trees will plant it’s 50,000th tree. That is an astounding record to celebrate on Earth Day.
The 50,000th tree will be part of a community planting at Fort Stanton Recreation Center in Anacostia. Casey Trees has added a focus on environmental justice and planting trees in traditionally underserved Wards 5,7, and 8. Tree decline in DC has increased in the last year especially in these areas. Why? Andrew Schichtel, Chief Operating Officer of Casey Trees, says climate change, development and some hesitancy by residents to plant trees have all contributed.
Casey Trees plants at least 5,500 trees a year in DC. Its goal is to increase that number to 8,000 trees a year. The group hopes to attain 40 percent canopy by 2032.
Casey Tree works closely with DC’s Urban Forestry Department, the National Park Service, and many other partners including residents, schools, and community groups. Just like the Arbor Day Foundation, which will plant 25,000 trees on Arbor Day around the United States, the trees planted are all free.
Where Do All These Trees Come From?
In the early days, Casey Trees outsourced its tree inventory by purchasing them from nurseries around the country, with many coming from tree farms in Oregon. Today, the group grows its own at a tree nursery on the former estate of Betty Casey near Berryville, VA in the Shenandoah.
The facility is a two-hour drive from Capitol Hill off Interstate 66. The trees are nestled along the Shenandoah River with a 100-acres of trees, row after row, staked to stand up straight, and cared for a staff of 13 full time employees. Schichtel oversees the operation.
“I grew up in Walla Walla, Oregon and my family actually supplied Casey Trees with some of our family trees as I was growing up,” Schichtel says. He had a chance to track a batch of trees shipped to DC and was introduced to the staff of Casey Trees while attending Catholic University. Upon graduation, he joined the growing organization and thirteen years later he is the Chief Operating Officer and manages the beautiful farm.
Imagine 5,000 trees in various stages of growth lined up in neat rows, with information tags on each tree and signs at the end of each row. Casey Trees grows 40 different species of trees that take 24-36 months to mature to the point they are ready to be placed on a truck and brought to their new homes. Schichtel says the annual audit shows the trees are worth a half a million dollars.
“I am not sure people realize how much human touch goes into growing these trees,” Schichtel reflects. “From the time the young trees are shipped to us, to planting the trees in the ground in circular pots, to staking them, pruning them, watering, checking for disease, there is staff caring for them.”
Currently, the staff is concerned about the redbud trees. A fungus creates open wounds on the tree’s limbs and trunk that cuts off the flow of nutrients, eventually killing the tree. Red buds, often more purple than red in its flowers, are a native tree to our area. Red buds and dogwoods bloom simultaneously, creating a lovely array of colors in the spring.
Schichtel says the disease is so prevalent, they will probably not ship any of their trees for planting this year. “Our staff are very diligent in educating themselves about the trees and current conditions,” says Schichtel, “and we also work with others like Bartlett Tree experts to share information.”
How Do I Sign Up For a Tree?
Casey Trees works with both individual residents, community groups and the city Urban Forestry operation to plant tree boxes. The easiest way to apply for a free tree or up to 25 trees is to go to the Casey Tree website, https://caseytrees.org/plant/free-trees. A Casey Tree arborist will get back to you and help you decide what kind of tree fits your property the best.
“It is really helpful if the resident has a type of tree, for instance maybe wanting a flowering tree, in mind, but we also are good at educating the owner on all kinds of possibilities,” says Schichtel.
When I was there, the farm had just gathered 25 trees to bring to DC to plant, and the variety of trees from a magnolia to oaks demonstrated the variety of trees that get planted.
If you’ve already purchased and planted a tree on your property, you can get up to $100 back through Casey Trees’ Tree Rebate Program. The program is only extended to DC residents or trees that will be planted at Washington, DC addresses.
On April 28th, Arbor Day, Casey Trees will celebrate by honoring volunteers and professionals in the tree field that have demonstrated outstanding service. It is an annual event that began in 2014.
As Schichtel noted, it really takes a lot of human care to keep the trees and the city canopy growing and thriving. The awards remind us of the professional and personal passion of our DC residents to keep our city green and healthy.
Rindy O’Brien was one of the first volunteers with Casey Trees. To contact her: Rindyobrien@gmail.com