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One million new trees for Ottawa

By Holly Van Boxmeer on November 12, 2014

Ottawa could be looking a lot greener in the years to come, or at least it will if Tree Ottawa gets its way. This local, community-based initiative is the brain-child of Ecology Ottawa, and has set itself the lofty goal of having 1 million new trees planted within Ottawa’s city limits before Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. Beyond this goal, Tree Ottawa is looking to engage with YOU, and every other member of the Ottawa community.

The organization has set itself up around three fundamental pillars: to Protect, Plant, and Promote trees in our city. The idea is to begin by empowering citizens to better take care of the trees Ottawa already has. Tree Ottawa’s Adopt-a-Tree program encourages individuals to “adopt” a tree in their area – be it young and in need of extra attention, or just of particular sentimental value – and look out for its basic needs and health. The organization is also actively looking to connect citizens who are interested in planting new trees with the people and the resources they need to get shovels to the soil and trees in the ground.

And finally, Tree Ottawa aims to celebrate the important role trees play in enriching our community. Be it as a source of shade on a hot summer day, a splash of green (or yellow, or orange!) in a grey urban landscape, or a means to keep our air ever-so-much cleaner – our city would truly be poorer without them.

Apartment613 had the opportunity to chat with Tree Ottawa Organizer Velta Tomsons to discuss the initiative. An edited version of our conversation follows:

Apartment613: What motivated Ecology Ottawa to create Tree Ottawa?

Velta Tomsons: With the Emerald Ash Borer looming we thought this was a huge opportunity for engagement around trees, because they’re not really a controversial issue. Everyone loves trees, everyone has a story with trees, and it’s something that everyone can get behind. We’re going to be losing approximately 25 million trees to the Emerald Ash Borer so let’s try to engage with Ottawa residents and try to get them to plant trees.

With our initiative being to plant one million trees people say that’s ambitious, but when you tell them we are going to be losing 25 million they think that’s not enough and we should be planting more.

Why are you starting the initiative now, and not the spring?

The initiative has actually been trying to find its feet for about a year or so, but we were able to officially launch this past October 14th.

Does that mean you want people to start planting now, or are you anticipating spring planting?

Now is pretty late to plant trees, the ground is going to be frozen soon. The initiative isn’t just about planting one million trees that’s not the whole point. The goal is really to engage with a large amount of Ottawa residents and get them to become stewards of the environment. We want to plant one tree for every Ottawa resident, and it would be our absolute dream if every Ottawa resident would plant one tree, but that’s not going to happen.

What is the greatest challenge or threat to Ottawa’s trees at the moment?

Unfortunately, it’s a smorgasbord of different issues. The Emerald Ash Borer is probably the most immediate and abundant threat when it comes to the sheer number of trees we are going to lose. But it’s hard to say that over time that is the biggest threat to Ottawa’s urban tree canopy, because we are also losing thousands of trees a year to things like urban infill design or urban development. So, immediately the Emerald Ash Borer is the larger threat, but in the long term I would say that urban development is a pretty big contender.

But just as important, is that we have a very old tree canopy. A lot of people don’t realise that trees just get old and die. We’re going to be losing a lot of trees just because of the natural end of their life, and if we don’t start planting more trees now we’re not going to have those medium sized trees to fill in once those large super canopy trees start falling down.

How can someone tell if a tree is not healthy? Who should they contact if they are concerned?

What is interesting about trees is that they mirror humans a lot, so you can tell if a tree is sick by its bark – just like you can tell if a human is sick from their skin. Go up to a tree and rub your hand vigorously against the bark: if it starts chipping off and if it feels loose, then it is not a healthy tree. With the Ash tree you can tell if they’re sick because the crown has no leaves, it’s almost like someone going bald; they have no hair on the top of their head but only on the sides. That’s what a lot of the Ash trees are starting to look like, or will start to look like soon.

If people want to talk to potential authorities about a tree the first thing they need to figure out is who does that tree belong to. If it is private property, you probably shouldn’t be contacting someone about the health of that tree without the owner’s permission. If it is your property you can contact the city by calling 311 and the operator will connect you with the forestry department.

What kind of resources does Tree Ottawa offer for people who want to be planting or otherwise get engaged?

Our initiative isn’t just to plant a million trees. There are some people who can’t plant trees – they may be renting or they already have a forest in their backyard. So we are looking for a variety of people who have different things to offer. We are looking for people who have land, or we have people who would like to donate trees. For example, if you have 10 acres of land we could come in with one of our collaborators like the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority and we could plant 23,000 trees over the next 3 years or so.

We also have people who can’t plant, so they decide to donate. People who may have the land to plant a tree but can’t afford to buy them can get in touch with us and we will help them find trees. We are all about making the connections for people. If people want to get involved in one way or another, we are going to help them do that.

For people who want to plant, we aren’t planning tree plantings ourselves, but we are getting communities to plan their own initiatives. We’re also talking to the organizers of FIFA Women’s World Cup: they are talking about leaving a legacy and planting trees would work perfectly with that.. We advertise on our website about where tree planting is taking place, and these are open to everybody, everybody can plant trees!

Is there a particular kind of tree that you would like to see more of in the city?

No, actually. We are all about planting a wide diversity of local native trees. We don’t want just a bunch more Maple or a bunch more Spruce, we want to make sure that we don’t have this same problem again. The reason we have so many ash trees is because 60 years ago we had Dutch elm disease and all the elm trees were dying, so they decided to plant a monoculture of Ash trees because they are beautiful and grow really fast. We want to be sure that the trees that we plant are local trees, are native trees, and that they are adapted to survive in this environment.

On the Tree Ottawa webpage we have an entire section devoted to local native trees.

Do have a favourite tree?

It is a complicated answer: I really like Willow trees. I just think they are one of the most majestic and romantic trees out there. I am a huge fan of the Little Mermaid, and when Ariel and Eric were in the boat they were under Willow trees! The fish were singing, and it was a beautiful ecosystem of love.

Was there anything else you wanted to add?

I would really like to promote our “adopt-a-tree” tool. There are a lot of people who don’t have land, or money, or they can’t plant a tree, and we don’t want them to think that they can’t have a huge impact. Street trees only have a lifespan of approximately 7 years, which is pretty abysmal if you think of a tree having a natural lifespan of 120 years or more. That’s because they don’t have enough nutrients. What they need is people to adopt them and water them about once a week for 3-5 years, enough time for that tree to naturally establish itself.

The tree map on our website allows people to go in and adopt a tree, it doesn’t have to be newly planted, although those are the ones that need the most help. They can also see the community of people who have adopted trees in Ottawa and they can blog about their tree, take photos or a selfie with their tree. There’s also a phone app which makes it very easy and accessible.

That is a way we really want to get people engaged with Tree Ottawa.

If you are interested in getting involved, be it by adopting, planting, or merely spreading some tree-loving gospel, please visit the Tree Ottawa website for more info.