Multigenerational Tree Watertown volunteers gather every fall for a bare root tree planting event. Here, volunteers assemble in fall of 2018.

Story by Michelle Sutton, NYSUFC Editor 🌳 Photos Courtesy Tree Watertown

The City of Watertown (population ~ 25,000, in Jefferson County) is an esteemed municipal member of the New York State Urban Forestry Council. Watertown is also a Tree City USA of 22 years’ standing. 

Although Watertown’s beautification efforts began decades prior, Tree Watertown was the name coined in 1996 for a group of community-tree-minded residents that began meeting in 1995. “Former DEC Forester Charlie Nevin came up with the name Tree Watertown,” says Watertown Planning and Community Development Director Mike Lumbis, who has been with the City since 1993, the same year he earned his degree in Landscape Architecture from SUNY-ESF.

Lumbis grew up in Watertown; after college, he started as an intern at the City, then was promoted to Assistant City Planner in 1994, then to City Planner in 2001. As of 2016, he was promoted to Watertown Planning and Community Development Director. He works closely with City Planner and Urban Forestry Coordinator (and Council Board Member) Mike DeMarco, who was hired by the City in 2016 and also grew up in Watertown. DeMarco earned his degree in Natural Resource Management from SUNY-ESF in 2012.

Tree Watertown fall planting volunteers, 2019. Photo by Emily Fell for Tree Watertown

Before Tree Watertown, the local Rotary Club had been planting trees for the community since 1976; Rotary remains one of Tree Watertown’s key partners. Two devastating events further accelerated concern for and awareness of the City’s tree assets that led to the formalization of Tree Watertown: the ice storm of March, 1991 and the microburst of July, 1995.

“Former Mayor and then-Interim City Manager Tom Walker—amazing man—convened a meeting of people who were concerned about the canopy losses from these two events,” Lumbis says. “The feeling was: enough’s enough. We can’t only take down trees and clean up messes. We need a plan here to recover our tree canopy.”

The City applied on behalf of Tree Watertown to the local community foundation for tree planting, which first took place downtown, on Washington Street.

“We chose this central location because we knew that with these storms—the uprooted trees and limbs falling—people were becoming afraid of trees,” Lumbis says. “We wanted to do educational outreach alongside the tree planting to show how proper species selection, early tree stewardship, and a well-maintained urban forest would be much safer for the community, yet retain the myriad benefits of trees to the people of Watertown.”

Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas) with interpretive signage in the Watertown Downtown Arboretum.

To that end, the first planting event taught middle schoolers how to properly plant trees and why tree are important. Tree Watertown began a campaign to give educational workshops to schools and civic groups of all kinds. “It was an exciting time,” Lumbis says. Educational outreach continues today with leadership by Mike DeMarco in partnership with longtime Tree Watertown stalwarts.

Out of those initial downtown plantings—and incorporating mature trees that were already there, mostly on the grounds of the Jefferson County Historical Society—evolved the Watertown Downtown Arboretum in the 200 block, with more recent expansion into the 300 block, in front of the State Office Building.

The Arboretum was formalized in 2003, when Tree Watertown took into account the existing cluster of mature copper beech (Fagus sylvatica Atropurprea Group), weeping European beech (F. sylvatica ‘Pendula’), tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), and catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) outside the Historical Society and realized the potential for an interesting tree collection in this central location.

Spectacular mature ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) in the Watertown Downtown Arboretum. Photo by Mike Lumbis for Tree Watertown

Simultaneously, Tree Watertown was busily diversifying the City’s tree inventory so that the once-overplanted silver maples (Acer saccharinum) and Norway maples (A. platanoides)—characteristic of so many New York cities—would become, over time, less predominant. The Downtown Arboretum now has signage, a tour brochure, and a map and is overseen by Mike DeMarco.

Tree Watertown volunteers and Watertown City Planner Michael DeMarco (holding stakes) in fall of 2018 plant a bare root dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) in Cosgrove-Sherman St. Park.

Lumbis and Tree Watertown were early adopters of the bare root tree planting method developed by the Cornell Urban Horticulture Institute (UHI). Lumbis heard UHI Director Nina Bassuk speak about bare root at the 1996 ReLeaf conference in New Paltz. “The first year we tried bare root was 1997,” Lumbis says. “We could immediately see how much more affordable it would be for the City and how much easier it would be for the volunteers who come to the spring Rotary tree planting events and the fall Tree Watertown tree planting events.” Watertown gets its bare root trees from Schichtel’s Nursery and Chestnut Ridge Nursery, both of whom have hydrogel root dipping setups in place per the UHI bare root method protocol.

In 2019, bare root trees awaited fall planting in Watertown’s Cosgrove-Sherman St. Park. The bare roots are dipped in hydrogel and bagged to prevent root desiccation.

How are Tree Watertown’s tree planting efforts funded? The labor for planting events—including that of Mike Lumbis and Mike DeMarco—is volunteer powered. Money for the trees is built into the city budget and comes from grants from the Rotary Club, the Carolyn Whitney Fund of the Northern New York Community Foundation, National Grid’s 10,000 Trees, and from the U.S. Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry grants as mediated through NYSDEC.

One of the Forest Service grants provided maintenance money that Watertown has used in a lasting and highly effective fashion. “In 2000-01, we planted a thousand trees in each of those two years with grant money to help us rebuild canopy after an ice storm in 1998 further chipped away at the urban forest resource. We wrote in a maintenance component for a summer urban forestry intern to water and mulch the trees. That’s how the summer program started, and we’ve continued it.”

Lauryn Tabolt, then a Hobart & William Smith junior, provided essential watering and mulching to newly planted and establishing trees in Watertown in the dry, hot summer of 2020.

Lumbis explains that it costs the city about $8500/year for the intern’s labor and for watering truck fuel—but it saves the City many more thousands of dollars by not wasting labor or letting trees fail to establish and thrive because they are not watered during the critical establishment period.

Some grants have funded fall tree planting, which Tree Watertown embraced with gusto after the group learned about the benefits of fall planting. These include cooler air temperatures, which reduces transpiration stress on the newly planted tree; still-warm soil temps that are conducive to root growth; and a better chance at early establishment before the stress of the following summer’s heat kicks in.

Mike Lumbis, Mike DeMarco, and Glen Roberts provided a planting demo for volunteers in the fall of 2019. Photo by Emily Fell for Tree Watertown

“We did our first fall tree planting about 20 years ago, on Watertown City School District grounds,” Lumbis says. “They purchased ten bare root trees for us and we planted them on the grounds, with a demo and educational component for the kids.” Fast forward to the fall 2021 planting on a cold, rainy, dreary sort of a day, when 50-60 Tree Watertown volunteers still showed up, as they faithfully do every autumn.

The first Watertown urban forest tree inventory was performed in 1999. In 2018, City Planner Mike DeMarco worked with Davey Resource Group (DRG) on Watertown’s 2018 Urban Forest Inventory and Tree Management Plan, which contains interesting stats and concrete recommendations for moving forward.

The third and final segment of the Black River Trail was completed in a joint effort between NYS Parks, City of Watertown, and NYS DOT. This project, 15 years in the making, originated as a rails-to-trails project that provided users an Adirondack-esque experience just one mile outside of the Watertown City limits. The City planted 39 trees as part of the latest trail segment, including ‘Autumn Brilliance’ serviceberry (Amelanchier), river birch (Betula nigra), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), ‘Espresso’ Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus), ‘Exclamation’ London planetree (Platanus x acerifolia), tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), white oak (Quercus alba), and bur oak (Q. macrocarpa).

DRG found that while the tree canopy condition and diversity needs continued improvement—goals the City and Tree Watertown are committed to—the good news is that Watertown’s trees have an estimated replacement value of $20,928,335 and that the City’s trees provide approximately $715,343 in aesthetic and environmental services benefits, including shade, storm water mitigation, and carbon sequestration.

Mike DeMarco gets pumped up about fall planting and bare root planting, and about increasing the diversity of Watertown’s urban forest so that it is more resilient to climate change and related threats, like genus- or species-specific pests and diseases. “Like so many aspects of our urban forestry program, Mike DeMarco is taking tree diversity considerations to the next level,” Lumbis says. In the fall of 2021, DeMarco selected 17 different taxa for the 50 trees that volunteers planted, and in the fall prior, 20 different taxa for the 50 trees. All of the trees planted by volunteers in fall are bare root.

Online education/outreach in the summer of 2020.

DeMarco is always game to talk about diversity choices and goals and about the best performers in terms of bare root planting and fall planting. “Sugar maples (A. saccharum), red oaks (Quercus rubra), honeylocusts (Gleditsia triacanthos), and Japanese tree lilacs (Syringa reticulata) are overrepresented in the inventory,” DeMarco says. “Acer is the only genus that’s still over 20% of the inventory, so we’re pulling back from maples.”

However, DeMarco says that if there’s a park or park-like planting site with ideal conditions for a sugar maple, Tree Watertown will plant one of a number of durable cultivars—like ‘Green Mountain’ or ‘Sugar Cone’—so that they are replacing some of the overly mature sugar maples. DeMarco also notes that the sugar-maple subspecies black maple (A. saccharum ssp. nigrum) planted in Watertown many decades ago are outperforming the straight sugar maples. “We planted a ‘Green Column’ black maple last year in our Downtown Arboretum and will be curious to see how it handles the soil compaction and heavy salting that can occur in this well-traveled site,” DeMarco says. “The buds are looking good!”

A sample of fall color in Watertown: The maple with red foliage at left is a straight sugar maple, while the maple with golden yellow foliage in the distance is a ‘Green Column’ black maple.

In terms of oaks, DeMarco has been eschewing ubiquitous red oaks in favor of other oaks with good to excellent tolerance of the stresses of the urban environment, like swamp white oak (Q. bicolor), bur oak (Q. macrocarpa) and ‘Urban Pinnacle’ bur oak, Crimson Spire oak (a hybrid of Q. robur x Q. alba), chinkapin oak (Q. muehlenbergii), Regal Prince oak (a hybrid of Q. robur f. fastigiata and Q. bicolor), and shingle oak (Q. imbricaria). All are planted bare root at 1.25 or 1.5-inch caliper, and many of these are suitable for fall planting. DeMarco has found that chinkapin oaks really must have a drier site. “In wetter areas, they don’t withstand transplanting shock, we have found,” he says.

Bare root dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), planted by Tree Watertown volunteers in 2018, shown settling in nicely in 2019.

One of the selections DeMarco has been particularly excited about is the fruitless osage orange (Maclura pomifera) cultivar ‘White Shield’, which tolerates dry, windy, hot sites; high soil pH; occasional wet conditions; and salt spray. It has no serious pests or diseases. “It does well bare root and in fall,” he says. “I find it fascinating that a tree native to Oklahoma like osage orange is doing so well here in the most challenging sites,” DeMarco says. “It’s also very vigorous—for us, up to 36 inches a year of shoot growth— which means you do need to have a young tree pruning program or plan in place. Our DPW tree crew has a young tree training program that works very well for us.”

‘White Shield’ osage orange (Maclura pomifera) in summer. Photo Courtesy Cornell Woody Plants Database

Other trees that Tree Watertown and/or the DPW tree crew plant bare root and in fall successfully include baldcypress tree (Taxodium distichum), dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) paperbark maple (A. griseum), eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), and katsuratree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum).

DeMarco wanted to give a shout out to longtime DEC Region 6 Forester Glen Roberts, who recently retired. “We sought to plant a tree in his honor, but there was no way it could be a surprise when it comes to Glen,” DeMarco says. “When we asked him what species or cultivar he’d like us to plant, he said, ‘Well why don’t you narrow down a site and a few suitable species for the site, and I’ll pick one.’ So even in retirement, he’s focused on making sure the site’s correct.”

DPW Buildings and Grounds crew planting a bare-root ‘Princeton Sentry’ Ginkgo on Watertown’s Public Square. This tree replaced a large Norway maple that required removal. The excavator is used for rapid site prep/soil amendment.

DeMarco says that Glen and other educators helped train the arborists on Watertown’s DPW tree crew, led by Buildings and Grounds Crew Chief Travis Hartman. The crew typically plants 80 to 100 bare root trees in the spring. Time is of the essence when it comes to getting bare root trees in the ground. “They have it nailed down,” DeMarco says. “Within one week in the spring the crew gets those trees in, first prepping the site with an excavator and topsoil, and quickly following the planting with watering, staking, and mulching.”

Hartman and his crew also handle all young tree maintenance and tree pruning. The structural, routine young tree (less than 9 inches DBH), and clearance pruning gets done in late January to early April. Each year, one third of the City’s young trees get pruned (the city is divided into North, West, and East sections, so the crew hits each section every three years.) “Last year the crew pruned more than 1500 trees,” DeMarco says.

What’s on the horizon for Tree Watertown? Lumbis says they want to take a look at the City’s tree ordinance and update that. “Our Planning Department is rewriting our zoning ordinance, so it would be a good time to embed legally binding tree considerations in the zoning ordinance around landscaping, and buffer zones,” Lumbis says.

Tree Watertown tree planting volunteers, fall of 2020.

Lumbis says he also looks forward to expanding the partnerships that make Tree Watertown’s efforts so successful. He says, “I want to acknowledge the school district, the local Catholic high school, school kids, environmental clubs, Girl Scouts, the Rotary Club, the Community Foundation, National Grid, the U.S. Forest Service and NYSDEC … even our Superintendent of Public Works will come out and help plant. Our Mayor and City Council along with our City Manager are also key partners in this effort.” 🌳