By Jaimie Julia Winters
Who’s watering Montclair’s new trees? Apparently, no one.
“An alarming number” of the 332 trees newly planted by the township are dead and dying due to a combination of lack of water and the harsh, hot summer weather, said Sandra Chamberlin of the Montclair Environmental Commission. As a result, the township is calling on residents to water the newly-planted trees outside their homes.
Over the last two years, the township has contracted spring and fall tree planting with Louis Barbato Landscaping of Holbrook, N.Y. In 2017, Montclair paid the company a total of $76,925, of which $42,000 was for spring plantings of 275 trees. This year, the town paid $59,500 for spring tree plantings.
The contract is for planting only. Watering is left up to homeowners where the trees are planted. But many homeowners are not aware that they should be watering, said Chamberlin. Letters are supposed to be left in residents’ mailboxes alerting them to newly planted trees outside their homes, but residents say they have received no notices. Acting Township Arborist Pat Sexton said he is not sure why the letters were not disseminated.
Sexton was out on leave earlier in the spring, while Township Arborist Steve Schuckman went on leave shortly after Sexton’s return.
After driving around town and seeing so many wilted or dead newly planted trees, Chamberlin put out an appeal in the July 6 “Letters to the Editor” section of Montclair Local asking for residents to pitch in. But since then, more have died.
Sexton said part of the problem could be that the trees were also planted later than usual, in June instead of May.
An informal tree survey by Chamberlin on Upper Mountain Way, where 25 new trees were planted this spring, showed 13 dead, eight on the verge and four doing well, she told the council last week.
Sexton said that his survey of all the trees came up with 75 dead and 40 very wilted.
“I think we are looking at a 20 percent loss this year,” he said. The town typically sees an 8-to-10 percent loss.
Gator reservoir bags – green plastic bags that wrap the trees and can be filled up weekly to slowly water new trees – are not used in Montclair except for trees planted in the business districts, he said. Essex County also places the bags on its newly planted trees along county roads.
Deputy Mayor Sean Spiller said the contractor is “on the hook” for replacing the trees that die. But Sexton said although nurseries usually guarantee trees for one year, the contractor is not contractually obligated to replace the dead trees.
Barbato Landscaping did not return Montclair Local’s request for comment on tree replacement.
Chamberlin suggested the town look into a shared-services agreement with another town that has a watering truck.
Sexton said his two-man crew doesn’t have the resources to do the watering.
Ultimately, Chamberlin thinks that a leaflet campaign alerting residents of newly-planted trees and appealing for help in watering could be successful.
Sexton agrees and is asking all residents that have a newly planted to tree outside their to begin to water it.
“The tree will need 15 to 20 gallons of water weekly in a very slow feed such as a hose,” he said. “Sprinklers and mother nature, unless is it rains consistently for five days, is not efficient.”
Glen Ridge and Rutherford have had success with rallying up residents to water. When a tree is planted in those towns, the resident gets a notice in their mailbox introducing them to their new tree and asking them to fill the gator bag weekly.
But some residents said this method could prove difficult for homeowners with larger front lawns, and seniors or the disabled.
A general rule of thumb is to use approximately 10 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter for each watering, according to the Tree USA website.
Sexton said that gator bags could help, but budgeting for the bags, which run about $25 a piece, would be up to the council.
“We are losing more trees than we can replace due to storm damage and the emerald ash borer [beetle], which is attacking all of our ash trees, and oak wilt,” said Suzanne Atman of the Montclair Environmental Commission.
She predicts that Montclair could lose 200 trees to the ash borer insect over the next two years.
In 2016, Montclair became the first municipality in Essex County to be affected by the insect. The Shade Tree Department is expected to locate all ash trees in Montclair and replace them.
Oak wilt is caused by a fungus that develops in the xylem, the water-carrying cells of trees. All oaks are susceptible to the fungus, but the red oaks often die much faster than white oaks.
The weather over the past few years, with late-summer and fall droughts and late-season freezes in March, has also hurt Montclair’s tree canopy. Over the winter, storms brought down about 100 trees in Montclair.