When Anne and Carl Little first moved to Fredericksburg, VA, their backyard was mostly dirt with a couple of trees. The playground behind their house wasn’t much better, growing more poison ivy than shade for the children.
“It drove me crazy, all those little kids on that hot playground with no trees,” Anne Little said from a gazebo in her backyard, which is now lush with foliage. “I thought, ‘Let’s put some trees around it.’”
In 2007, she and her husband got a $1,000 grant to do just that and planted 17 trees that year. On a walk through that park in May, she pointed out the first foot-and-a-half Sycamore sapling she planted then. Now 35 feet tall, it is hard to miss. It’s even visible over tall fences from her backyard gazebo.
“Usually, you can figure about a foot a year for a tree. Seven years later, it’s gained 34 feet,” she said, walking up to give its trunk an approving pat. “This is our special tree.”
Since then, the Littles and the nonprofit they started soon after, Tree Fredericksburg, have planted about 4,100 trees, exceeding the tree-planting goals the city had established a couple of years before they came onto the scene.
Dave King, assistant director of public works for the City of Fredericksburg, said the goal of 4,000 new trees in a decade —laid out in the city’s first Street Tree Plan in 2005 — was a lofty one. At the time, the city was removing two or three trees for every tree that was being planted, leaving thousands of “empty slots” where trees had died but not been replaced.
“We did pretty well with removing dead trees, but it was difficult for us to find the time to plant a lot of new trees,” King said. “That’s where they came in.”
Trees are a workhorse for water quality, absorbing rainwater and slowing runoff while benefitting human and wildlife health and beautifying cities. This year, the Chesapeake Bay Program released an Urban Tree Canopy Strategy that aims for a net gain of 2,400 acres of tree canopy in urban areas of the Bay by 2025. That may not be easy to reach; Fredericksburg is one of many cities struggling to grow its canopy.
“I think the case has to be made over and over again for trees,” Anne Little said.
After planting dozens of them in the playground behind their backyard, the Littles began to see the need for more trees throughout the city. They found grants to pay for the trees and volunteers to help plant them, but they wanted a more reliable funding source.
The city “saw that we kept showing up, and they saw that what we were doing was working,” she said. “I met with the city manager and said, ‘We’d like to do this, but we can’t do this without money.’”
For the city, working with the nonprofit meant more funds could be spent on trees rather than city staffing. The nonprofit already showed impressive survival rates with the new trees it planted, thanks to consistent watering and best planting practices.
So the city made its “symbiotic relationship” with the nonprofit official and made more room for trees in the budget.
Since then, Fredericksburg has directed about $65,000 a year to its tree-planting effort with Tree Fredericksburg, which, along with up to $25,000 in other grants, plants an average of 700 trees a year. The number was closer to 800 last year, a new record for the group.
“Our urban forest in the last 10 years has gone from one end of the scale to the other — not only more trees, but a better selection and variety,” King said of Fredericksburg, a historic college town of about 28,000 people that earned its Tree City USA designation from the Arbor Day Foundation 30 years ago.
The key to growing an urban tree canopy, Anne Little said, isn’t just planting new trees, but keeping them alive.
She got into trees by way of native plants, and into those by way of bluebirds. She and her husband — whom she met in Woodbridge, VA, when they were both 45 years old — helped start the Virginia Bluebird Society. Putting up bird boxes meant surrounding them with native plants for habitat. Soon, Anne Little was taking classes on native plants — and then, in her 60s, teaching them.
After moving to town in 2002, she and her husband painstakingly transitioned their yard to feature almost exclusively native plants. Walking through it, Little points out the few nonnatives and share her plans to replace them.
Naturally, trees were the next step. She took classes about best practices from Virginia Tech University and horticulture programs in Pennsylvania and New York. Now 70, Little applies that knowledge — and the energy of someone half her age — to growing Fredericksburg’s canopy.
“There must be four of her,” said Bryan Hofmann, program manager for Friends of the Rappahannock, who works alongside Little on tree-planting projects. “If there’s some event everyone needs to go to, she’s there, but she’s also picking up cigarette butts at the park. There’s not enough hours in the day for the work that she does.”
When she talks to a park beautification committee or resident about planting a certain species of tree, Little uses her yard and the nearby playground as demonstration gardens of what that tree will look like. She is a chronic educator, unfazed by explaining again and again the best tree-planting practices to residents or business owners who receive free trees from her nonprofit. “When we plant a tree in a neighborhood, they get eight pieces of information,” she said. “It’s not just planting; it’s educating.”
One of the biggest obstacles to growing a tree canopy is a lack of “tree literacy” among those planting and maintaining the trees, Little said.
She bemoans landscape architects who would put a willow oak 10 feet from a house or high-maintenance American hollies alongside a biking trail. “Right tree, right place,” is the motto she’s borrowed from horticultural conferences, because having to remove the wrong one won’t aid the long-term effort.
Often, the “right tree” to provide the most benefits is a native one that provides habitat for hundreds of species in the process.
“When I first came here 17 years ago, Bradford pear was the tree. Now we have a much more diverse forest,” King said.
Along with a list of the best trees to plant along streets, Tree Fredericksburg has dispersed guidelines citywide on how often to water trees, when to prune them and how to lay the mulch around their trunks after planting.
The newly planted trees are watered once a week, which gives their roots a chance to grow as they seek moisture between drinks. Without regular watering in the early years, Little said that less than half of the trees would survive.
Little is particularly passionate about a technique called “bare root” planting, which involves shaking all of the mulch and nursery soil from the trees’ roots before planting them directly into the native soil. She also has spread the word that the age of “the mulch mound” is over. Now, she spreads that mound out over a larger surface to match the tree’s canopy — which also means the parks department has that much less grass to mow.
The shadows those branches cast midday at the park behind Little’s house also reflect how much water they’ll absorb the next time it rains, slowing the rate of polluted runoff to the Rappahannock River.
“We say we plant trees for the health of the river,” said Little, who, during a three-year stint on the Tri-County Soil & Water Conservation District board, had “drains to the Bay” stickers placed on stormwater drains in the city.
“Even a small, 10-inch diameter tree can absorb about 60 gallons of water in a storm,” she continued, spouting off some of the facts she’s shared many times in support of trees. “Multiply that by 10,000 trees, and you’ve got something.”