162 Trees. That’s the count for the 500 Trees Campaign this planting season – 159 trees in the ground and three more to be planted at the schools, but delayed by the COVID-19 school closure.
The response to the GreenTown Los Altos 500 Trees campaign was wonderful. We planted all kinds of trees – big trees like Valley Oaks, medium sized trees like the Chinese Pistache, and lots of fruit trees, our most popular category. We planted in every part of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills and achieved a nicely balanced distribution. Our mission was to educate about the environmental benefits of trees and lead by example, by getting trees planted. In this we succeeded.
It was a long campaign, starting in 2018, when we at GreenTown observed that while our trees are beautiful, and we are fortunate to have so many, after several dry years there are too many dead and dying trees. We decided to do something about it.
Here is our story.
A college student, Naomi Zimmerman, home for winter break from Barnard College, and in a lucky break for us, asked if she could help with an environmental project. We jumped at the chance and that is how in January 2019, the campaign to plant trees moved from a simple idea and began to take shape.
Naomi worked with Gary Hedden, project leader, and Michael Hawkins and Elise Willis from Canopy, a Palo Altos nonprofit that has been planting trees since 1996, to come up with a proposal to plant 500 trees. Naomi presented it to the GreenTown Board, the Board liked the concept and voted to proceed.
The Board talked about the scope of the project and how to fund it, but even more importantly, how to get volunteers to make it work. GreenTown hosted a community talk by Dave Muffly in May that helped solve that challenge. Dave is a respected master arborist who worked with Steve Jobs to get more than 9000 trees planted at the Apple campus in Cupertino. Dave told a packed room at the Los Altos Library about the importance of planting resilient trees; trees that will do well now, and continue to do well in a future shaped by climate change. Inspired, several volunteers stepped up to join GreenTown’s 500 Trees campaign.
The first team meeting was held in June and some goals were set: Reach out to like-minded people and groups for support, arrange for grants and donations, launch the campaign in the fall, host demonstrations and
workshops, plant trees October-March and finish with a flourish on Arbor Day, April 24, 2020 with a grand celebration and party. Most of our goals have been or will be met, although the shelter-in-place order means the party is off.
Team volunteers Gary, Kris Jensen, Christine Keller, Roy Lambertson, Kathy Radford, Autumn Looijen, Katie Dellamaggiore, Birgitta Indaco, Meri-Beth Bird, and Richard Lanman took on a numbers of tasks – meeting with council members and staff from Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, along with commissions and committees, groups like the Rotary, Kiwanis and the Newcomer’s Club, and school PTAs. The team also researched pricing from local nurseries and identified grant opportunities.
Another volunteer, an important one, came from the four summer interns we hired in 2019. The internship program was started in 2018 under the leadership of Arnold Ambiel, and has been both valuable and inspirational. One of the 2019 interns, Ellen Hu, a student at Denali High School in Sunnyvale, made 500 Trees the focus of her 10-week internship. She worked on the details of the campaign – the initial design for flyers and hand outs, the project scope, and a detailed budget. She also worked with Canopy to create a list of 23 trees expected to be resilient to a warming climate. The list included evergreen and deciduous trees, in all sizes, and both natives and non-natives. It included Valley Oak, a hearty native, and Island Oak, a native to southern California and Mexico that should do well now and into the future. Likewise, the list included the Oklahoma Redbud, a variety expected to do better than the native Western Redbud in the years ahead. Ellen added pictures and descriptive text for each of the 23 trees and made this into a booklet. We call this our “Flipbook” as we flip through the pages to discuss tree selection and placement. The Flipbook is on our website.
The team settled on a scope of work – to plant trees in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills in parks, at schools and at homes, and as an incentive, to offer the trees at less than wholesale cost and plant the trees for free. We obtained funding from GreenTown and from the Los Altos Community Foundation to make this possible. The homeowners pay most of the cost of their trees, allowing the program to succeed. We also worked with a local hardware store, True Value, and store owner Henry Nesmith generously offered a discount on tree planting supplies. We took advantage of his generosity many times.
A very important volunteer joined the team in August, Jill Woodford, a landscape designer and our connection to the wholesale nursery, Devil Mountain Nursery. In addition to ordering trees and offering solid advice, Jill and her son Lucas helped with tree planting.
Canopy offered a Community Forestry class in September led by Natalie Brubaker and Katie Rummel. It was an eight week course with a class every Wednesday evening and outside activities every weekend. Gary and Autumn took the class and learned how to pick a tree – the mantra is “right tree, right place,” how to plant a tree and how to run a tree planting campaign.
In preparation for the launch of the campaign, the team developed a site checklist, an important document to determine the right tree for a property owner. It asked what the homeowner would like in terms of shade, privacy, fall color, fruit and appearance. It evaluated overhead lines and underground services, the look of the tree at full maturity, some general advice about trees and tree care, and the cost. We started our site visits in September with team members Gary, Roy and Christine. Not every site visit resulted in an order for trees, but most did, and it was always fun to meet homeowners, talk about trees and introduce people to GreenTown.
Getting the word out to the community is simple in concept, less so in practice. We posted information on our website, including a landing page for people seeking information, and online with our Facebook page. As mentioned above we met with the Rotary, Kiwanis and other groups, we were interviewed by the Town Crier for a news story, we placed ads in the Town Crier using graphic design by Jan Davis, we were mentioned in a Mission Trail quarterly statement and in a Chamber of Commerce monthly newsletter. We were introduced to the seniors at Grant Park by Lynette Lee Eng, mentioned in Nextdoor posts, in church bulletins and by school PTAs.
To get tree planting help we reached out to youth groups. The Los Altos High School Green Team, with Audrey Chang and Elena Atluri helped on several occasions, along with Lexi Crilley from the Climate Action Team. We connected with Living Wisdom High School, a school in Palo Alto that heard about us from Canopy. Kshama Kellogg and Shanti Pollacek and their students helped us plant trees on two occasions, including our first tree planting at a private home, a pair of Strawberry trees planted November 22. We worked with Boy Scout Troop 75 and Brian Boggs for two tree plantings, the SLOBS (Service League of Boys) with Tyler Huang twice, and the girls’ service group, Together We Can, a delightful group led by parents Amanda Boschken and Jennifer Springer, that planted three trees for us in February. These students and scouts love getting into the dirt and an hour later seeing a beautiful new tree ready to start its life. We all get a thrill from planting a tree.
We planted our first tree November 9, a Coast Live Oak at Rosita Park. This was a demonstration planting led by Ron Reynoso with the City of Los Altos. It was attended by a number of team members and provided a good lesson for all. A picture was published in the Town Crier, helping with our outreach.
We had a lot of success planting a tree at each elementary school in town. With the help of Marlene Shafran, and the principals and front office staff at each of the LASD schools, we got eight trees planted in early February. We planted Western Redbuds at these schools in response to a special request by Caroline Chan, as it fits better with the lesson plan of Living Classroom and their emphasis on native Californian plants. Lino and Tony, two long-time, dedicated school facility employees planted these trees, and it was a pleasure to work with them. Planting at the elementary schools was always a special treat. We met the student ambassadors at Springer, the Green Team at Blach and the Photography Club at Egan. At Almond, we were carefully watched by four kindergarten classes. When asked why we plant trees, one little girl immediately answered, “Because they give us oxygen.” Wow, she’s six years old. A little boy added, “It is like breathing, except they take in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen.” Wow again, I’m so impressed with the next generation! Still to be planted at the schools, the two Cedars at Montclair Elementary, in an effort led by parent Emma Tweddell, and the Valley Oak at the Living Classroom garden at Oak School. This will be a memorial tree in honor of the husband and daughter of Living Classroom founder Vicki Moore.
The major effort has been planting trees at homes. Our target was front yards, or side yards with a street view, as we wanted visibility for our trees as a benefit to the community. We planted these trees with the help of the student groups mentioned above and several adults from our team, Gary, Jill, Roy, Brian, Autumn, Mike Schlansker, and Wayne Hooper. We also hired day workers from the Day Worker Center in Mountain View from time to time because some of us don’t like heavy lifting and hard digging very much anymore. We planted 152 trees at 78 homes between November and March, and the response from the homeowners has been 100% positive.
All of this work has been tracked by two people working in the background, Jana Schlansker with Salesforce and Lesley Williams, who got a tree and then asked to help, using Numbers.
We planted our first tree in early November and tree number 159 on March 19. Once we plant the two Cedars and the Valley Oak we will reach number 162, and after planting 162 trees at 78 homes, one park and nine schools, we know a thing or two about trees. We know there is an interest in getting more trees planted so we are collecting names to continue the campaign. Once we secure grant funding, we will reach out to the wait list and start another round of tree planting in November.
We are looking forward to it!