Chapter 1: About Advanced Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners and the Tree Steward Training Manual

“Where are we going and how do we get there?”



To be an Extension Master Gardener Tree Steward (EMG TS) is to see new wonders: where once you walked in a park and enjoyed a mass of greenery for the shade, now you will recognize individual friends in the trees which provide that shade. When you see a venerable giant, you will know something about how it got to be that way. Trees are the largest living things on earth, and they are vital to the web of water, air and food which makes life possible on our fragile planet. You are about to learn how to learn about them, how to take care of them, and how to help our communities value them as they deserve. You may even be able to help tackle some of our worst challenges in urban tree survival under hostile conditions, or the preservation of healthy rural forests from significant ecological threats.

On a more mundane plane, this chapter describes Virginia Cooperative Extension Advanced Master Gardener Programs, considering especially Tree Stewards. It explains the conceptual design of the manual, with discussion and examples of practical ways for new EMG TS to support VCE objectives and improve their communities.

This manual is based upon the assumption that all EMG TS students are fully qualified EMG and are therefore familiar with the VCE Master Gardener Handbook (the basic class text). If it has been a while since training, or if you are a transfer from another state, then review may be appropriate. Each chapter in this manual will say up front which basic chapters and/or topics are relevant.

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand Virginia Cooperative Extension Advanced Master Gardener program goals.
  2. Understand what VCE EMG Tree Stewards do to advance VCE goals.
  3. Know the intent and organization of this Training Manual.

REVIEW VCE Master Gardener Handbook 2015 (9/18 update):

  • Chapter 1, Welcome to VCE Master Gardening

Advanced EMG Programs in Virginia

As of the writing of this book, there are three Advanced EMG programs: Tree Steward, Water Steward and Land Care Steward. All three require course work, training in leadership and program development, and practical application by means of a project to enhance community education, sustainability, health, or other appropriate goal. Each training program aims to help Advanced EMGs develop long range educational plans as well as short term projects. Training Courses have been offered on a rotating basis during the annual Master Gardener College and also by local VCE Agents and EMG groups around the state from time to time. This manual aims to support all such educational efforts and create more regional coordination and focus among EMG TS.

Looking farther afield, the writers of this manual reviewed all state EMG programs (and Washington, DC), looking for the status and content of their advanced EMG Programs. Information as of 2008, shows that all have EMGs and 23 programs have some form of advanced EMGs. Six of those address leadership and communication needs directly in the classroom, and all include these skills in class projects. VCE would seem to be in the forefront of using advanced EMGs to cause real, meaningful community improvement through individual and group action.

Being an Advanced EMG

Extension Master Gardeners are a special group of people: excited to learn new and useful things; passionate about their environment and the essential role plants play; and eager to make positive change at whatever level they can. This may be as simple as showing their neighbors better mulching practices or watering methods, or as significant as helping a school create a learning garden. Advanced EMGs take this a step further by specializing in one broad area so they can increase their value as a community resource. Along with this added value comes greater opportunity to educate and serve.

Who should consider becoming an advanced VCE Master Gardener? The long answer is a fully accredited EMG who is interested in furthering his/her knowledge of a Horticultural Field. In-depth training is meant to be followed by sharing that knowledge with appropriate communities, leading to new actions toward sustainable landscaping, conservation and/or environmental improvement. Some new advanced EMGs may be taking on leadership roles, while others may form supporting teams.

In this context, ‘community’ can be the local EMGA, neighborhood association, faith group, social, educational, governmental or other entity whose activities are consistent with the policies of VCE. Local VCE Agents should be closely involved in developing advanced EMG programs and projects, since they have the authority and responsibility for approval.

The true end goal is to engage the community to take actions that will conserve natural resources and improve the environment. Advanced EMGs should be especially helpful in finding ways to move their communities forward in these areas toward the sustainable landscapes of the future. A wide range of skills and voices will help reach members of many different communities: an essential goal for real progress.

man standing at table with maps and other educational materials speaking to woman holding a green bag
Figure 1-1 Tree Steward Info Table. (Courtesy of Carol King)

What kind of activities should advanced EMGs expect to engage in? In the first year, new advanced course graduates are required to put in at least 20 hours of service on a project of their choice (with agent approval, of course). After that, they will work individually or (more likely) in teams to identify local needs for Conservation and Sustainable Landscape measures. They will consider possible educational and practical goals along with short and long term benefits and costs, and then work with community members to develop appropriate programs for execution and feedback. Program development can be more of a long term process, but new advanced EMGs working with VCE Agents should be able to identify short term projects which will fit into larger program goals.

Prospective advanced EMGs who are in small local numbers, or even pioneers in their local units, may face special challenges. In such a case, the advanced EMG can include regular EMGs in small scale projects such as homeowner education/assistance and community conservation efforts. At the same time, it will be important to identify community members with some degree of authority who are open to Sustainable Landscaping and/or Conservation programs or measures. While it may take time to build up a program from scratch, the development is rewarding even in the early stages. Keeping one’s eyes on the long term benefits and holding those out for residents and local authorities to see will lead to success over time.

Tree Steward Possibilities

In some localities, with the approval of the local VCE Agent, tree stewards (TS) may go out on site visits to examine tree problems, educate homeowners and others on best plant care practices, and serve as a link between the public and VCE/professional experts. Such visits are usually an extension of VCE Help Desk. In addition to dealing with the specific reason for the visit, the TS will often be presented with additional opportunities for public enlightenment (“As long as you’re here…”) which can sometimes be a more significant educational opportunity than the original question. As with any Help Desk query, follow-up research and/or samples to send to VT labs may be needed, so a TS should not be afraid to say “I don’t know, but I will find out.”

Three people stand around a tree looking up into foliage
Figure 1-2 EMG TS visiting a Crape Myrtle. (Courtesy of Carol King)

Another need seen by new TS is for Tree Inventories and Tree Walks. The former can be of great use in educating governmental bodies and improving tree management, especially if appropriate land/tree management authorities are closely involved. Tree Walks are clearly educational but can also serve purposes of horticultural therapy or other need. They may be guided or unguided/mapped, with or without signage. New TS may also find local Streets or Parks Departments open to help in recommending tree plantings which will lead to sustainable urban/suburban forestry, erosion control, and storm water management.

A group of volunteers stands at the top of a dirt-covered hill and reads clipboards, looks up into the trees, or look at one another
Figure 1-3 Tree Inventory in a Local Park. (Courtesy of Carol King)

More complex projects will generally mean developing plans with community leaders to identify and address significant ecological challenges. Topics for such plans might include organizing reforestation in and around public areas, promotinge the use of site-appropriate trees through education, or incorporating tree management goals in city and county planning documents. Considering the dire situation faced by trees in urban settings and the challenges to our remaining rural forests, there is real need for public education and motivation based on scientific information. In our cities and paved-over suburbs, inhospitable soils and hostile growing conditions mean that existing trees die from construction and newly planted trees may survive as long as 25 years, suffering stress-related pests for most of their short lives. In more rural settings, invasive plants and insects increasingly threaten the healthy balance that is essential to forest survival; if indeed that forest is not cut down for development. So there are many avenues to follow to make a difference, starting with our own education and networking to join or create productive teams. There are many possible partners and resources, depending on the locality. It may be worthwhile to look for city or county boards that manage or advise on trees and tree planning. These boards may be found in Parks and Recreation, Public Works, and/or Planning Commissions.

Chapter Seven (Trees and Ecology) includes a much more detailed discussion of ways EMG TS and others can make a difference in their local environments.

The Virginia Urban Forest Council, also known as Trees Virginia, is a non-profit organization associated with the Virginia Department of Forestry. It represents a wide range of people and organizations joined to stimulate public awareness of the role trees and forests play in the urban environment. Trees Virginia programs in many parts of the state are useful partners with VCE TS, though the specific focuses of each may differ. There are two consortium groups that bring together a wide variety of tree actors, with the support of VDOF: the Urban Forest Roundtables of Northern Virginia (NOVA) and Southeastern Virginia (SEVA). If you live in either area, their periodic meetings are a valuable resource of current trend information and networking.

Other organizations which are worth looking into include the National Arbor Day Foundation, which runs the Tree City USA, Tree Campus USA and Tree Line USA programs. US Department of Agriculture, US Forest Service, National Park Service, VA Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, expert tree companies and/or landscapers may all be of help with public-benefit outreach efforts.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1918 which oversees and communicates norms and guidelines in many industries. It is also an information bridge between these industry standard developers and appropriate government and international agencies. From the perspective of Tree Stewards, their most significant publications are ANSI Z60.1, “Nursery Stock Quality,” and the wide-ranging ANSI A300, “Tree, Shrub, and Other Woody Plant Management Standard Practices.” Topics covered by this second document include Soil Management, Root Management, Transplanting, Support and Lightning Protection Systems, and Tree Risk Assessment. The Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) is the A300 directorate.

The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) is a leader in developing and enforcing professional arborist certification programs. ISA also has a strong public education program for tree owners and interested parties on their website and in their publications. Chapters from the A300 standard are available through ISA, as well as Best Management Practices (BMP) which provide more detailed explanations in the various A300 topic areas. Tree Stewards who are interested in working with tree care professionals will find the BMPs helpful as a common point of reference.

Tree Steward Manual Objectives and Concept

The primary purpose of the manual is to support advanced EMG Tree Steward Training Programs across Virginia. The text is intended to be flexible enough to cover the wide range of climatic and horticultural conditions in the state, leaving room for additional resources to address local and specialist concerns. TS students in specific training courses should be provided with or directed to websites and publications which are significant to their work: field guides, plant data bases, expert pruning manuals, pathology resources, and the like.

One of the major concerns of the authors is to encourage local or regional VCE Agents and EMG Associations to hold TS Courses which optimize knowledge of local trees and conditions. Local Agents and Associations also need help in developing the talents of TS who have been trained at Master Gardener College. This manual hopes to encourage regional and other cooperation to enhance the overall effectiveness of the EMG TS statewide.

The manual is organized in three groups of topics. The first three chapters set the stage, from an introduction to EMG Tree Stewards through initial educational programming and a large motivational step to consider the fundamental questions ‘Why Trees?’ (Chapter 3). The theory is that EMGs attracted to the TS Program already have an intuitive appreciation of the importance of trees but probably do not yet understand the environmental and scientific significance of the largest and most productive plant partners in the cycle of life on earth. Addressing students’ key motivations first builds upon their initial enthusiasm and prepares them for learning about the necessary scientific and empirical detail. The next four chapters are devoted to scientific building blocks, culminating in ecology discussions on the state and regional level. The last four state-level chapters discuss key techniques and practices essential to making use of the scientific and practical knowledge. The final chapter is for forms and locally developed materials such as city/county tree ordinances or planning documents, recent news articles, and anything else which will help the Tree Steward Interns put their training to good, local use.

Chapter Specifics: Big Picture, Building Blocks and Practices

“But for tree planting to be sustainable, we must not simply plant a tree. Rather we must carefully choose, situate, and cultivate a tree so that it is healthy, robust, long-lived and functional. We call this “right tree, right place.” When we put the wrong tree in the wrong place, then that tree is unsustainable. It might become invasive, create infrastructure conflicts, develop defects, or fail to thrive. In all of these instances, the tree’s costs outweigh its benefits, and it therefore has practically no value to society or the environment.” Dr. P. Eric Wiseman, “Sustainability Practices in Arboriculture,” Tree Care Industry Magazine XXIV (7): 7-11.

Big Picture: Chapters One through Three.

The first chapter is the introduction, which you are reading now. The second chapter explains how to find ways to improve local conditions for and with trees. This has been called the Logic Model or just Programming, both terms of significant aridity. In real terms, it is nothing more than a way to organize information and intentions. In a sea of miscellany, it is a skill to be able to find the important stuff and make it useful. The third chapter provides detail on Why Trees Matter. This is a very large topic, with impact on human society and the environment, urban and rural and in between. There are wonderful studies showing the positive effects of trees on people: better health outcomes, lower crime, more prosperous businesses. These are effects we can all appreciate unscientifically simply by standing under a large oak on a hot summer day. But just any tree in any place will not add benefit without due consideration of local conditions and tree specifics. Hence, there is a need for education about trees and tree management at any and all levels. This is the heart of everything EMG TS are meant to do for our communities.

Building Blocks of Knowledge: Chapters Four through Seven.

The fourth chapter is Botany of Trees, looking specifically at trees as compared to other plants. The intent is not to repeat basic MG material but rather to understand how trees become the giants of our plant world and how they interact with their environments. The goal of this chapter is help the students learn to “think like trees.”

The fifth chapter is devoted to actual trees, with the title Tree Taxonomy, Identification and Measurement. Bringing this level of detail in so early is because many past students complained that they joined the course to learn to learn about trees specifically, not just as a general topic. As an advanced EMG Training Program, we need to recognize that our students come with significant EMG backgrounds already and are more focused in their goals than basic MG students. That said, the chapter starts with an understanding of Taxonomy and Dichotomous Keys in order to make sense of tree nomenclature and organization. Then the chapter covers a number of Tree Families and exemplars, selected for their relevance to Virginia’s environment, economy, history and horticultural experience.

The sixth chapter is Soil Properties and Management. The idea is for TS to look at their soils as the first partner in growing and sustaining trees. The soil descriptions are both local and regional, some naturally occurring, and a distressing portion impacted by human activity. It may be argued that Soils should come first, as the foundation of all plant growth, but the manual figures that the prior topics will highlight the importance of Soils and lead to a broader understanding of the situations faced by many of our agricultural, forested, industrial, suburban and urban soils. The coverage of Nutrients and Fertilizers aims to equip new TS with the tools to make wise decisions as they work with the trees of their futures.

The seventh chapter, Trees and Ecology, considers the larger context within which our trees live and explores the nature of arboriculture and sustainable forestry. The first part of it looks at definitions and general relationships among environmental factors. Then it considers distribution patterns of those factors across the state. Finally, the state is divided into regions (one among many possible) and each region has a local descriptive section. The intent is for local Tree Steward Training Programs to give their students a general state picture and, more importantly, an understanding of the local ecological challenges.

Practices: Chapters Eight through Eleven.

The last four chapters deal with techniques: Siting and Planting; Tree Health Care and Pruning; Biotic and Abiotic Problems of Trees; and Structural Defects, Tree Failure, and Risk. These topics will not repeat Basic MG Training but rather expand upon it with more advanced advice. The goal is to for the new advanced EMGs to be able to develop their expertise as they experience local tree problems and challenges. These final chapters are not intended for the students to master during their initial courses, but rather as an introduction to further knowledge and a particular resource for EMG Tree Stewards and their VCE Agents.

Is My Tree a Hazard?
Tree Stewards may be tempted to engage in tree risk assessment, but should instead become very familiar with the criteria professional arborists use to make such judgements so they can advise homeowners when a professional should be called in. TS can also perform a significant service by advising tree owners on how to avoid having to call for a risk assessment in the first place: better maintenance and routine care, also (best!) right-tree/right-place to begin with.

Finally, a twelfth chapter is included for forms and local matters of any sort. It includes an example worksheet and proposal form which has been useful in past courses of the Peninsula EMG Tree Stewards. Units are welcome to modify this form or develop their own to address local situations. The rest of this chapter may include local maps, environmental surveys, county or city documents, links to USFS, VDOF etc. It is also possible for a local unit to document past projects and future prospects in this chapter.

A Note about Fruit Trees

No VCE MG Tree Steward training can be complete without addressing Fruit Trees, particularly in the Home Garden. However, the subject is a large one, with many regional variations in both best selection and potential Help Desk problems. Also, a basic 30 to 36 hour EMG TS training course is already pretty full with the other materials in this manual. Thus, it is recommended that regional EMG TS programs set up advanced Training Sessions on the appropriate fruit trees for their regions.

Review Questions

  1. What are advanced EMGs?
  2. Why Tree Stewards?
  3. Why do you want to be a Tree Steward?
  4. Is there something in your community which can be helped with the right trees?
  5. How can you help make this happen?



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