Getting to the Root

There is lots of buzz in the world of Arboriculture and Urban Forestry about the “value” of existing mature trees. Peter was quoted in the Star Tribune this week in an article about this topic. It is an ongoing discussion in our office, and we are always interested in innovative methods to help us save this trees we know are really invaluable.


Getting to the root of saving mature trees

  • Article by: DON JACOBSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 8, 2014 – 4:53 PM

With pressure on commercial property owners to “green up” their outdoor landscapes coming from local governments and environmentally conscious tenants, some of them are discovering that saving a distressed mature tree — while not cheap — can be good for both the soul and the bottom line.

While there isn’t much argument about their benefits to a commercial property, the trees aren’t feeling the love back, arborists and landscape architects say. That’s because typical soil conditions around apartment buildings, office campuses and suburban malls are too poor to promote healthy growth, and property owners often seem unwilling to spend upfront to condition their soils properly.

This often results in desperate calls to arborists such as Bartlett Tree Experts to rescue valuable dying trees. To answer the demand, Stamford, Conn.-based Bartlett, which has local offices in Plymouth and West St. Paul, is expanding its services for commercial properties by touting a proprietary “root invigoration” system that uses a supersonic air tool to loosen compacted urban soils around trees.

“After we do a soil analysis, we can use the air tiller to quickly fluff up the soil all the way out to a tree’s drip line [the ring on ground level that receives most of the rainwater shed from the tree canopy],” Heaton said. “This allows water and nutrients to reach a tree’s feeder roots.”

Hoping to get more landscape architects, academic researchers and government forestry officials interested in this so-called Root-Rx process, Bartlett staged a demonstration this week at Como Park Zoo in St. Paul, where zoo officials are hoping to rescue a high-profile bur oak at the entrance of its new, $11 million gorilla forest exhibit.

Arborist Jonathan Heaton and Tom Smiley, a Bartlett arboriculture researcher and adjunct professor at Clemson University, explained to the gathering that workers using a type of “air spade” originally developed to search for land mines can break up compacted soil far more efficiently than previous methods such as drilling holes, all without disturbing a tree’s delicate root system.

The next step is to mix in fertilizer, mycorrhizal fungus spores and an organic matter developed by Bartlett known as biochar. This material is derived from biomass such as wood chips, crop residues and manures processed with heat in a low- or no-oxygen environment to produce a carbon-enriched charcoal that promotes microbial activity.

After that’s completed, the area around the struggling tree is covered with mulch. The results, Smiley says, are dramatic, with some tree canopies recovering their leaf foliage after just one or two years.

Commercial building owners are noticing and are becoming a bigger segment of the company’s clientele, which has historically served residential homeowners.

“Studies have shown that people who live in apartments and office workers appreciate the benefits of tress in the landscape and that it makes a better environment for them,” Smiley said.

The work isn’t cheap at $750 per tree, but the long-term benefits of saving mature trees are worth it, said landscape architect Peter MacDonagh of Edina-based Kestrel Design Group, whose recent work has included designing green roofs for Target Center and the Minneapolis Central Library.

“I know that this process has worked, we’ve done it on a number projects over the years,” he said. “The key thing to understand is that the value of a bigger tree to a property is not just a little bit more than a smaller one — it’s orders of magnitude higher. That’s based on U.S. Forest Service calculations of the worth of trees not just for property values, but also for countering air pollution and managing stormwater.”

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Trees Tame Stormwater

An interesting interactive graphic has been put together by the Arbor Day Foundation, one that we might have to print and put up at our office. Check out how trees can “tame” stormwater.

Rain refreshes the land and nourishes the green landscape. But as houses, stores, schools, roads and parking lots spread and natural tree cover is lost, so is the absorbing effect of vegetation and soil. The welcome rain becomes costly stormwater runoff. Without the benefit of trees and vegetated infrastructure, waterways are polluted as oils, heavy metal particles and other harmful substances are washed away. Fish and wildlife suffer, drinking water becomes expensive or impossible to reclaim, property values are reduced, and our living environment is degraded.


Trees Tame Stormwater—Interactive Poster

Trees Tame Stormwater—Interactive Poster


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Spring Fever

The spring is teasing us here in Minnesota. A few days of sun and warmth followed by a full week of near-freezing rains. One sunny spot of my weekend included finding hints of plants coming back to life. One of my favorite natives, the Pasque Flower gives me hope that spring will be here for good soon.

Pasque Flower blooming in Minnesota, Spring 2014, image by Marcy Bean

Pasque Flower blooming in Minnesota, Spring 2014, image by Marcy Bean

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Peck Farm Park

PeckFarmPark01Before “sustainable” was an everyday phrase, the Kestrel Design Group helped create a sustainable heritage park called Peck Farm Park. This park is still functioning today for active recreation, interpretation, and is a great example of landscape restoration that gets better with age.

Geneva, Illinois, for Geneva Park District

Peck Farm Park, a 160-acre Illinois Heritage Park, is a showcase of biorestoration techniques, a cross-section of all-northern Illinois plant communities, while accommodating active recreation. Peck Farm Park provides education, recreation and enjoyable grounds, in addition to promoting the quality and health of our environment and water.

This park is a blueprint for park development in the 21st century. Concepts of sustainability, biorestoration, uniqueness of place, bioengineering and ultimately “living lighter on the land” are introduced and explained. The visitor has the opportunity to be immersed in the landscape that sustains us all and allows them to stand on an authentic piece of America. This demonstration of “Conservation Development” shows how to protect the environment in a developing situation in the fastest growing county (Kane) in the state of Illinois. Techniques shown include: biorestoration swales (natural vegetated swales), stormwater wetlands, enhanced wetlands, wastewater wetland, rare and endangered plant community restoration, and a wide selection of Best Management Practices.

This project had a lengthy Citizens Advisory Committee process from the surrounding stakeholders to emphasize BMP’s, lakescaping, stormwater wetlands and other water quality initiatives. This process extended over several months. The Kestrel Design Group facilitated this process and inspired massive volunteer efforts.

A wonderful feature of this project is the geographic location of Geneva Middle School, which shares a boundary with Peck Farm Park. Students are monitoring the water quality of the stormwater coming from the Middle School and passing through newly created stormwater wetlands and finally into Peck Lake. Future projects will include the planting of native prairie plants, followed by monitoring of the plant and wildlife populations that will move into and establish homes within newly created habitat at Peck Farm Park. Peck Farm Park provides a unique opportunity for young scouts to make a meaningful contribution to Geneva’s open space. Currently wildlife homes and other conservation projects are being built by the local scout troop. Trail bridges and a vast array of wildlife nesting boxes were built and donated by Eagle Scout candidates working to complete projects. Scouts have also planted vegaterraces, submerged aquatics, mesic and wet prairie and have inoculated the created wetlands with amphibians from the DNR.

Conceived as giant water filters, each wetland removes sediment and pollution from stormwater runoff, passing on successively cleaner water into the next wetland, until the flow reaches Peck Lake. By improving the health of the sub-watershed through the use of BMP’s, the lake can be stabilized and revitalized. Geneva Park District’s Peck Farm Park is rich in both cultural and natural history. Innovative biorestoration and habitat creation techniques have been used to create a cross section of all major northern Illinois plant communities at this Illinois Heritage Park. Visitors to Peck Farm Park experience a surprisingly varied site where history, recreation and the environment come together to form a piece of “Heritage Illinois”. For more information about the park today, see its website at

2001 Native Landscaping Award – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Chicago Wilderness Conservation
1999 Analysis and Planning Merit Award – American Society of Landscape Architects, Illinois Chapter
1999 Design Merit Award – American Society of Landscape Architects, Illinois Chapter
1999 Outstanding Facility Award – Illinois Department of Natural Resources
1998 Best New Facility Award – Illinois Park & Recreation Association

+ Sustainable Landscape Design
+ Park Master Planning
+ Wildlife Habitat Restoration
+ Integrated Stormwater Management

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Minneapolis Chain of Lakes & Minnehaha Creek

Chain01 (1)Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the Minneapolis Parks & Rec Board

The Minneapolis Park System is focused around the Chain of Lakes, a series of glacial ice block lakes that drain into the Mississippi River by way of Minnehaha Creek. While this jewel of Minneapolis has been preserved from development and draws more than 5.5 million visitors per year, urban runoff from the surrounding 8,000+ acres of urban watersheds and intensive recreational use had taken their toll. To address these challenges, the Minnehaha Creek watershed district and Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board spearheaded a watershed-wide stewardship vision, which included the Kestrel Design Group as lead Landscape Architect.

Efforts were aimed at improving water quality; increasing wildlife habitat quality, and drawing out the region’s unique regional character. Kestrel provided services ranging from historical research, natural resource inventory using GPS/GIS Minnesota Land Cover Classification (MLCCS), ecological design or storm water wetlands, sustainable and ecological stormwater management, erosion control, lakescaping, stream restoration, wildlife habitat enhancement, and oordination of neighborhood involvement.Chain01 (2)

Water quality improvement projects aimed at reducing erosion, sedimentation, and excess nutrients in surface water bodies and increasing awareness of water quality stewardship issues on public and residential land. For example, the Cedar Meadows Stormwater Wetlands Project included creation and restoration of several wetlands, resulting in increased water clarity from 3.5 feet to 15 feet visibility in Cedar Lake.

Further downstream, grit chambers and a created micropool have greatly reduced the sedimentation plume into Lake Harriet. Comprehensive water quality improvement efforts at Lake Nokomis Park are improving water quality through a combination of rough fish removal, grit chambers, three stormwater wetlands, modification of the lake’s outlet structure into Minnehaha Creek, and lakeshore stabilization. Clarity readings doubled from 2002 to 2003. Erosion and instability were addressed with soil bioengineering, streambank gradient stabilization, and floodplain reconnection at Minnehaha Creek.

Wildlife habitat has been enhanced by creating and restoring wetlands, establishing diverse, native wetland buffers, and installing wildlife habitat enhancement structures.


+ Stormwater Best Management Practices

+ Wetland Delineation, Mitigation, & Restoration

+ Shoreline Restoration

+ Wildlife Habitat Enhancement

+ Integrated Native Landscape Design & Maintenance Plan

+ Sustainable Master Planning


2001 Land Use and Community Development Award, Minnesota Environmental Initiative




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