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Trees for Capitol Hill

Soon the trees will start to bud that lovely light green as the trees wake up from the cold winter.  The flowering ones will begin their annual show. For one non-profit organization dedicated to trees, Trees for Capitol Hill (TFCH), it is a time for the big reveal. Having planted their trees in early November, there is no way to know what the future holds for the slim trees until the winter winds are gone. If all has gone well, these fledging trees will be sprouting green. 

Renewing the Canopy
It may be a surprise to new comers to Washington that the city is called the City of Trees.  Going back to DC’s very early days, George Washington and his city planner, Pierre L’Enfant, made sure that the city had a balance of nature and buildings.  By 1870, Boss Shepherd planted 60,000 trees as part of his public works projects.  DC is still considered to have more green space than any other national capitol in the world. 

Early on, DC streets were zoned to be planted with certain kinds of trees.  East Capitol was planted in American Elms; other streets may have had oaks or maples. It made a beautiful framing of the street because of the trees uniformity.  But, it proved to be a death sentence to many of the trees. Suddenly, one tree after another were gone as disease spread.  By the 1950’s approximately 50 percent of the city’s trees were gone.  Increased traffic and further development contributed to the acceleration of tree decline, and by 2011 it was estimated that the tree canopy had hit rock bottom of 35 percent.

Trees for Capitol Hill was an early pioneer in the citywide tree conservation efforts.  Founded in 1991, the non-profit organization has planted more than a 1,000 trees in public spaces on Capitol Hill.  It has pruned and cared for another 5,000 or more trees.  The group is funded by generous grants from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation, National Capitol bank, and individual donors. 

Along with organizing the yearly planting, the all volunteer organization researches new species of street trees and connects Capitol Hill volunteers to other tree efforts whether they are being conducted by the Urban Forestry Administration, the DC agency responsible for trees, or groups like Casey Trees that provide excellent education and training classes.  Trees for Capitol Hill’s online newsletters are a full of tips on watering, pruning, and tree selection. 

Picking your Tree
Starting in early summer, the core group of volunteers, including the President, Beth Purcell, Secretary, Mark Grace, and Vice President and Treasurer, Elizabeth Nelson begin to survey and field calls from Hill residents interested in securing a tree for their tree box, favorite park, or school space. Elizabeth Nelson says that the group works with the Urban Forestry Administration to coordinate their list with the city’s efforts, and to secure any permits needed to do the plantings. 

For the homeowner, they are asked to dig the hole for the tree, have water ready for the planting, and adopt the tree for watering and care for two to three years as the tree gets rooted.  “It sometimes takes a number of strong volunteers to get the holes dug,” reports Elizabeth, “and that is why we hope some of the new Hill residents will volunteer to help us.”  It takes a village. 

Homeowners also get a chance to consult and work with TFCH to choose the appropriate tree for their space. “The current regulation is to plant native trees,” Elizabeth says.  “There certainly are a lot of trees on that list to chose from, and we look at what already exists on the block and try and find a tree that fits in.”  The trees are purchased with a community discount from Merrifield Garden Center.

Merrifield Garden Center has worked with TPCH since the beginning.  Merrifield employees, many certified arborists and master gardeners are able to guide the Hill volunteers in selecting strong, stable, and suitable species for the hill environment. The location has a lot to do with the type of tree that can be planted, and Merrifield has years of experience in monitoring different growing conditions, as well as keeping up with some of the new disease resistance species.  “We have been so lucky,” Elizabeth says, “to have developed a very special relationship with Merrifield, and it is always a highlight of the year to see their big red truck arriving on Capitol Hill with our trees ready to plant.”

New Programs
The mission of the organization has been to plant and care for trees in public spaces on the Hill, but TFCH has added a new program to continue its success in expanding the tree canopy.  The “Friends and Family” program supports residents who would like to add a tree to their own yard.  Homeowners are asked to pay the cost of the tree at the discounted price, and a pro-rated share of the delivery cost.  TFCH helps secure the appropriate permits and guides the homeowner in the final selection of the tree.  It is not easy to get a good young tree from the nursery to your home front yard; so being a part of the November planting day is an extra bonus. 

Memorial trees are also a fairly new program with TFCH.  Family and friends are finding that planting a tree to remember a member of their family is very meaningful.  Similar to the Friends and Family program, the memorial tree is purchased at a discount. Often the family will invite others to join them for the tree planting, with a few special prayers and thoughts given at that time. Last year, a memorial tree was planted in the 1300 block of North Carolina Avenue, NE in memory Gloria Junge.  A lover of nature, trees, and the wildlife that inhabited them, the tree is the perfect way to celebrate Gloria’s legacy.  Contact TFCH if you are interested in honoring one of your loved ones in this manner.

Volunteering for the Future
The organization is reaching its twenty-seventh anniversary, and hopes that new residents will become friends of the organization and volunteer to adopt a tree on their block to water, prune, or be part of the November brigade that plants between eight and twenty trees in early November. You, too, can wait with great anticipation of spring and for Mother Nature to reveal the success of your planting.  Information is easy to find on the Trees For the Hill website, www. Treesforcapitolhill.org   

Rindy OBrien is returning as the Hill Gardener.  Her interest in all things green keeps her busy exploring the Hill gardens and beyond.  Rindy can be reached at rindyobrien@gmail.com


Memorial trees are a fairly new program with TFCH. Family and friends are finding that planting a tree to remember a member of their family is very meaningful. Often the family will invite others to join them for the tree planting, with a few special prayers and thoughts given at that time. Contact TFCH if you are interested in honoring one of your loved ones in this manner. www. Treesforcapitolhill.org

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