The Story of How the Baltimore TreeKeepers, Pruners, and Weed Warriors Made It Happen
Interview with Urban Forester Ted Martello
The Earth & I: Ted Martello, please could you tell our readers who you are and with what organization?
Ted Martello: I am an urban forester, and I like to add “community” to my title because tree planting really is about building capacity in and engaging with the community. So, my unofficial job description is urban and community forestry. I'm with the Baltimore City's Department of Recreation and Parks. There's an initiative within our urban forestry division called “TreeBaltimore” that is related to planting, maintaining, and establishing young new trees in the Baltimore landscape.
E&I: What is the state of Baltimore City’s tree canopy?
Martello: We are at the tail end of cleaning up the mess from our ash trees (Fraxinus) that have been decimated by a beetle called the Emerald Ash [Borer] Beetle.
In 2015, we took inventory of all our ash trees and selected and prioritized healthy and larger ash trees to be treated with an insecticide. The rest of them were marked for removal.
Many years later, we are seeing the decline of the remaining ash trees. In addition to that, we are continually pruning and removing dying or dead trees in parks and along the public right of way along streets.
Often, these trees in very urban conditions are extremely hard working within very harsh, difficult-to-live-in, adverse conditions.
Through incorporating tree diversity on a block-by-block scale, we're establishing a resilient forest.
Through incorporating tree diversity on a block-by-block scale, we're establishing a resilient forest. [This means] if another beetle arrives from another part of this planet and begins to host just on that one species like the ash, that the other sweet gums, bald cypress, and swamp white oak trees that we planted on that block would still be standing. So, we are avoiding system failure and really being smart when we say, “Right tree, right place.”
E&I: Do you work with the Maryland Big Tree Program?
Martello: Yes. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has the country's oldest state tree measuring program (Maryland Big Tree Program). Maryland was once home to the Wye Oak, a 400-plus-year-old Quercus alba or white oak growing on the Eastern Shore near the town of Easton, just over the Bay Bridge, but it fell over in a storm in the early 2000s.
There are many progenies of that tree—the source of pride for the state of Maryland, growing in our city and around the state. Although Montgomery County, for example, has the most champion trees, Baltimore has the most diverse collection of trees. So, we like to think of our city as a melting pot of trees, not only native to Maryland, but also ginkgoes and other trees from around the world that were brought here and planted.
We like to think of our city as a melting pot of trees, not only native to Maryland, but also other trees from around the world that were brought here and planted.
E&I: Can these trees be found with maps and GPS?
Martello: Yes, we're building out these "story maps" or interactive maps. Those are found on our TreeBaltimore website: https://www.treebaltimore.org/maps. So, you could do a self-guided tour or tour with us.
E&I: Who started the TreeKeepers program?
Ted Martello: We do this tree planting work with the help of many nonprofit groups like Blue Water Baltimore, Baltimore Tree Trust, and Baltimore Green Space, which is a local land trust that preserves green spaces, gardens, and forest patches. Our partners from our NGOs, in combination with our staff experts here at the forestry department, put a course together that became an early initiative around 2007, when TreeBaltimore was formed. TreeBaltimore was then signed as a mayoral initiative. We take pride in that it is a certification program—that not just anyone can plant a tree, but they first have to go through our courses.
E&I: So, those who are certified can go out and plant trees?
Martello: That's right. This fall we have an online store where our citizens can reserve a free tree and adopt it with the intention to plant it in their yard. Our TreeKeepers will be assisting with the discussion that needs to happen before someone decides on what type of tree to plant. Because one of our mantras as arborists is, "Right tree, right place."
And all the while the city's tree canopy is slowly increasing. We have seen a 1% increase in the last ten years. In urban environments, there is a bit of a renaissance in this tree planting and expanding the tree canopy.
E&I: How do you monitor the volunteers?
Martello: First, we always encourage them to let us know if they have events that we can help promote because one TreeKeeper in a neighborhood could use the help from TreeKeepers from all over the city.
Second is by providing the planting stock, but we always ask for data in exchange. Although the trees are free, the data is really what we're asking from them in exchange, so that we know exactly where each tree that we provide gets planted. And we always consult with them and want to make sure they're on the right track when it comes to maintenance. This is a big, hot topic in this tree planting realm: "What is the plan for maintenance?"
Studies showing that crime can be reduced with the presence of trees, have also shown that when a recently planted tree is not maintained crime comes back.
Studies showing that crime can be reduced with the presence of trees, have also shown that when a recently planted tree is not maintained, crime comes back—because there's visual evidence such as garbage hasn't been picked up, or tree stakes and tree ties left hanging.
E&I: You are trying to adjust to planting more sustainable trees that can deal with the warming of the climate. How would you describe the awareness of these issues among those who come to you?
Martello: We recognize that in our city and anywhere you go, there's such a diverse set of worldviews and perceptions and different ways of knowing the world.
I would be confident to say that anyone that's gone through and completed our TreeKeepers program has really been set up to not only plant and prune the tree but to really know how to relate to their neighbors who may not have a college education, who may not understand fancy words like “urban heat island” or “drought stress” of a tree.
It has been one of the interesting topics that I've grown through my eight years here is just how to really engage just your average person; how to offer programs that are accessible and relatable to just anyone.
Oftentimes, we sell a tree as an environmental service, such as to prevent stormwater or to lower the temperature. So, that's been one of the interesting topics that I've grown through my eight years here is how to offer programs that are accessible and relatable to just anyone.
What I've learned is that there are different ways of knowing the world. We know through studies that on a basic human level, people believe that trees are important for beautification and to have in their environment.
I think it’s important to talk to that, and we need more ways to connect with newer audiences and not someone who's already sort of tuned into it. We're very happy to have all our TreeKeepers coming—and they may have a good foundation of knowledge to begin with—but we want to reach everyone.
One of the programs I've been building over the last three years is nature and forest therapy. In Japan, they call it shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, essentially bathing in the atmosphere of the forest. The whole design is to simply hold space for community to come together in a natural environment, find a present moment, and celebrate what beauty we do have.
Maybe part of it is to grieve the losses from environmental destruction that we are experiencing or grieve the loss of one's mother or loved one. It is just holding space for nature as a healing community, building a liberating experience.
We are also working with special needs groups, the police department, friends of groups, and the volunteer stewards, TreeKeepers, and Weed Warriors who are involved to just enjoy nature and have this mindful time in nature practice. I think engagement has been my most fascinating topic, like how do we reach newer audiences?
And I never thought that I would be interacting with special needs groups with developmental disabilities. And it's been very heartwarming for me to just witness them; it works for me, and I know it works for them, and I get to see that.
E&I: How do you lead a special needs group to a forest space?
Martello: They come to one of two locations that I practice at primarily: Cylburn Arboretum and Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, two green spaces that are on public land. I look at this like a partnership with the land itself. I am very familiar with the trees, the animals, and waters that move through these spaces, the different seasons, and when a good time of day would be. About ten to fifteen people will arrive, and we will gather in a circle—we always start and end in a circle.
Many times, they’re wheelchair-bound. So, we will just have a very gentle walk, sometimes no more than fifty yards from the parking lot. But we will get under the shade of a tree. I am essentially inviting them to connect with their senses to connect with the place and themselves—to feel gravity and the Earth supporting the weight of their feet, to listen to birds singing, and to maybe close their eyes and to bring their awareness into some of these other senses.
It's great for everyone to hear everyone sharing. We create the space where, for example, we pick up a pine cone and pass it around the circle. And whenever someone's holding the pine cone, it's their time to share with the group. What are they noticing? Maybe they're just noticing they're sleepy, and this has been a relaxing, rejuvenating time. Or maybe sometimes they will share something quite profound.
We close the session—which can be ninety minutes to 2.5 hours long—with a tea ceremony. The tea is always brewed with an herb or plant that's growing right there on the land, and we offer one of the teacups back to the land as a symbol of reciprocity, as giving thanks and gratitude for the land.
E&I: That must have been really inspiring for them. This is the offering of the Baltimore Parks Department?
Martello: Yes, if you look at our programs tab at https://www.treebaltimore.org/nature-therapy, you will see all our programs. At the very bottom, you'll see Nature Therapy, and there's a little description of how many people that we've served in the last three years since I've been certified as a guide.
E&I: How did you get certified?
Martello: So, there is this international group based in Santa Rosa, California, called the Association for Nature and Forest Therapy. There are different methodologies out there that are called forest bathing. But I really enjoyed this training.
It changed my life. It was a combination of training and a personal retreat. It was eight days in Western Maryland, followed by a six-month, at-home practicum. It had a daily sit spot, journaling, and a harvest project, and they asked us to go on a medicine walk to really prepare ourselves to guide other people and help people find a comfortable place. The goal is having something very accessible. You don't have to be outdoorsy. You can just come as you are, and let's enjoy nature together.
For more information about the TreeBaltimore TreeKeepers program, look up https://www.treebaltimore.org.
For the E&I, Christoph Wilkening spoke with Ted Martello.