I’ve been reflecting on my time as TreePeople’s Volunteer Manager as I prepare to take on life’s next adventure to pursue my graduate degree in Urban Planning at UCLA this Fall. Over the past two years, I’ve been moved by the community of volunteers I get to work with every day.
I’ll never forget the mornings I woke up bright and early, making coffee and loading up the trucks for a day out in the field with the change makers of LA– the city I call home. I’ve made lasting friendships, brought shade and fresh air to neighborhoods, and listened to inspiring stories of our volunteers and Forestry staff. I’ve learned so much— from our dedicated Park Work Day volunteers, like Merrill Koss, who show up every week to help us keep Coldwater Canyon Park beautiful— to when our team careened up mountain roads, drinking in panoramas, trees in tow.
Planting trees is hard work. And if I’ve learned anything, there are two tasks that show how far volunteers are willing to push themselves to help grow our urban forest— digging holes and mulching. I’ve spent hundreds of hours next to volunteers hauling mulch and digging holes, and even when I wanted to quit, the volunteers kept going.
The benefits of mulch are undeniable. When we mulch around a tree’s base, we mimic the conditions of a mature forest where leaves and branches would naturally fall to slowly break down and provide nutrients. Mulch retains moisture and slows water from evaporating out of the soil to protect the tree’s roots from drying out. Did you know mulch also offers protection to tree roots by insulating the soil keeping it cool on hot days and warmer during cold snaps?
Of course, mulch is awesome, but for a tree to experience these benefits someone has to get the mulch to the tree. This is where volunteers come into the picture. Filling mulch buckets is an unforgiving task. And by some mystery of physics, mulch piles seem to average 1,000 degrees hotter than the surface of the sun. Dust fills the air as we load pitchfork after pitchfork of mulch into buckets. Once the buckets and wheelbarrows are full we then get to move that mulch to the trees. This is hard work, but every week I’ve been impressed by how ready and willing volunteers are to make mulch piles disappear while keeping a smile on their face.
Growing up all I wanted to do was get outside, explore and dig some holes. There’s something special and adventurous about getting your hands dirty in the soil. At TreePeople, digging took on an entirely new meaning. For every hole we dug, we planted a new tree to provide shade, capture rainwater, and create a natural habitat for local birds, bugs, and critter for decades to come.
If you’ve volunteered at a TreePeople to plant trees, you know that digging the hole correctly is critical for tree survival. The “Goldilocks” depth leaves your tree’s root flare level with the surrounding soil. If you dig too deep you can bury the trunk and the tree could rot. If you dig too shallow the exposed roots will bake in the sun. You have probably noticed that tree roots are incredibly strong when you see a buckled sidewalk (Also see: Always plant the right tree in the right place).
We don’t have always have the ability to choose nice soft soil, so we dig through whatever we have to work with. That means some mornings teams of volunteers shovel through solid rock, compacted concrete and gravel, heavy clay, or softball-sized rocks. Working through blisters, buckets of sweat, and the discouraging sound of a shovel bouncing off of rock, our volunteers continue. Total strangers come to the aid of one another, encouraging their new friends to keep going, and celebrating when their hole gets the “OK!”
Los Angeles is full of people who are ready to act on climate. It takes a strong commitment and passion to create a more sustainable Los Angeles. Through TreePeople I’ve met thousands of Angelenos who share that passion and take on the necessary hard work and do it while having fun. It is that energy will keep me coming back to TreePeople as a volunteer for years to come even after I move on.