Recently planted trees along Berkmar Drive Extended are dying from the heat and a lack of precipitation. Credit: Credit: Talia Wiener, Charlottesville Tomorrow

Along the newly constructed Berkmar Drive Extended, part of the Route 29 Solutions package, the trees that dot the edges of the road and the sloping hills on both sides are wilting in the summer heat and dying.

“They plant them fast because it saves money. To do it right takes about twice as long,” said Tim Maywalt, a Charlottesville tree steward. “These are problems that tree stewards have looked at and we’ve tried to find a financial incentive to get things done right and we come up short because there isn’t one.”

Maywalt and others involved with the Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards noticed tree fatalities along the new sites in the Route 29 area, but improper treatment of trees is not a new or localized problem.

“I don’t think it’s specific to Charlottesville. It’s wherever you’re doing major construction,” Maywalt said, “A tree goes through this shock of being taken out of the ground at the nursery … If they’re put into the ground the way they ought to be, that reduces the impact and the stress, then the biggest issue really is the heat and watering.”

The Virginia Department of Transportation is responsible for overseeing landscaping contracts involved with the Route 29 Solutions project. Lou Hatter, project communications manager, says VDOT checks on the trees and ensures the landscapers honor their contracts.

“We monitor the activities of the contract including the placement of landscaping and the maintenance of landscaping once it’s planted,” said Lou Hatter. “The contractor doesn’t just walk away once the plants are in the ground. The contract includes a three-year period after the plants are put in the ground where the contractor is responsible for care of the plants as well as replacement of plantings that are damaged or have died during that period.”

The three-year establishment period is one of vital importance to the life of any tree. According to Maywalt, it takes up to three years for a tree to become self-sufficient.

“The first year is critical because no matter how good a job you’ve done, it’s traumatic to pick a tree up out of the ground and put it somewhere else,” Maywalt said. “You really have to baby trees if you put them in the ground at the wrong time.”

The VDOT design-build contract for landscaping lists detailed procedures for planting, maintenance, and scheduling for those three years. It also provides guidelines for tree replacement after fatalities.

“Between the beginning and ending dates of the establishment period, plants that are dead, defective, or otherwise not in a healthy growing conditions as determined by the Engineer shall be removed within 1 week of observation at the Contractor’s expense,” the contract states.

Hatter and VDOT are aware of the current state of the trees but have advised the contractor to wait on tree replacement until the weather moderates.

“As the projects came to completion, we went through and identified trees that were already either in distress or had already died,” Hatter said. “We recommended to the project contractor that they hold off on the replacements until the weather moderates some, because we did have such extreme heat and lack of rain.”

Hatter says the suggested time for replanting is early fall, the best time for most trees to be planted according to Maywalt.

“The bottom line is if the plants don’t make it, if they do die during that period of time, they do have to be replaced,” Hatter said. “Whether they do that 20 at a time or whether they do that one at a time is up to them.”

In Charlottesville, contractors have the option of working with the city to obtain a landscape bond that allows for delayed planting, ensuring that planting occurs in the proper season. Once landscaping is complete, the bond payment is returned.

Contractors also have the option of planting immediately, despite time of the year. In this case, they are responsible for all plant replacements if they do not survive.

“It’s hard to deal with the people who put the trees in the ground on a commercial basis because the time of year is an issue because it’s set by contract and it’s going to happen when it happens,” Maywalt said. “Planting a tree has a half a dozen critical steps you have to take and most of them take time … You have to do them all right or else you’re going to have fatalities.”

Fatalities are unavoidable in tree planting, he said, but proper initial and follow up care can ensure high success rates.

“Planting at the right time of year, you’re sometimes going to lose 3 percent, but planting at the wrong time of year, you’re looking at losing 30 percent,” Maywalt said. “It makes a difference.”