Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards spread community awareness

The Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards,
made up of nature lovers who focus on the identification, planting, and preservation
of trees in the area, are beginning their
yearly training class on Tuesday, February
19. The group participates in local outdoor projects and is currently reaching out to homeowners with funds and tips for planting new backyard trees. (Photo: Rosemary Connelly)

Self-proclaimed tree hugger Martha Orton said she’s had an interest in learning about trees and forest health since her son told her, while on a reforestation trip to India, that “trees all look different when you know their names.”

A retired social worker, Orton enrolled in the Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards’ 14-week training class in 2011. The Tuesday morning courses are taught by local and regional tree experts, including Piedmont Virginia Community College instructors and Virginia Department of Forestry officials. Students listen to lectures, bring in tree branches and leaves to identify, participate in interactive discussions, and take three-day trips to nearby forests.

The classes, which offer extensive identification knowledge and instruction on how to plant, prune, and care for trees, have grown increasingly popular since the group formed in 2008. This year’s training season begins Tuesday, February 19.

Orton said she signed up to become a tree steward because, as a longtime nature lover and the daughter of a farmer, she wanted to feel more in tune with the forests she spent so much time in.

“My father’s always been very good at that. He knew tree names just like he knew family members,” Orton said. “I always felt ignorant when going out in the woods, and wanted the enjoyment of being able to understand the trees better when I went hiking.”

After completing the training class at a cost of $85, CATS members can participate in hands-on projects like workdays at Montpelier and Monticello’s Kemper Park.

A lot of members join for the educational aspect, said CATS president Phil Stokes. But he said the ultimate goal of the group, which is working on acquiring nonprofit status, is to diversify the trees in Virginia by spreading awareness of the value of trees, and getting their own hands dirty.

Stokes said the tree stewards have planted upwards of 50 native shrubs at the Ivy Creek Natural Center alone, rejuvenating an area that had once been decimated by invasive species with greenery that attracts insects and wildlife.

“The forest is in trouble,” Stokes said. “If it’s not fires it’s deer or invasive plants, and it’s something we need more community involvement to maintain.”

With a $2,500 grant from the BAMA Works Dave Matthews Band Fund, CATS members are giving homeowners vouchers to cover half the cost of new trees to plant. And with their volunteer hours and newfound knowledge of what trees need in order to thrive, they’re helping rookie planters get started and improve the city’s canopy—and helping others avoid their “tree planting pet peeves,” like when well-intentioned homeowners buy potted trees with destroyed root systems, or when uneducated landscapers pile so much mulch around a sapling that it can’t hydrate properly.

This year’s CATS training course begins next month. A handful of students are signed up, but Stokes said they need a full classroom of 15-20 in order to bring in speakers.

Orton said she’s planning to enroll again, especially because they’re free for current members. “The classes are just so interesting and enriching,” she said. “I don’t have to do it all over again, but I’m going to anyway.”

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