A gift to future Northfielders: Tree50th project helps ensure a greener Main Street

At Northfield’s Tree50th planting event, the group receieves instructions about how deep to plant the trees and how to fill around them.

At Northfield’s Tree50th planting event, the group receieves instructions about how deep to plant the trees and how to fill around them. PHOTO COURTESY JINX HASTINGS

A partial group photo of the volunteers at Northfield’s Tree50th gathering this past Saturday. 

A partial group photo of the volunteers at Northfield’s Tree50th gathering this past Saturday.  PHOTO COURTESY JUDY WAGNER




For the Recorder

Published: 11-06-2023 1:22 PM

Judy Wagner’s penchant for planting trees in her beloved town of Northfield has roots in something she witnessed at age five while on a family hike in her native Georgia.

“We came upon a grove of little plum trees, all in blossom, and my dad decided to dig one up and take it home,” Wagner recalled. As the family headed back to their car carrying the lovely arboreal prize, they passed another hiker, who commented that the little plum tree wouldn’t succeed in their yard. “Yet five years later, that tree was 30 feet tall and producing fruit,” said Wagner. “It’s thrilling to remember.”

Wagner has always had an affinity for trees, and discovered in her many years of working on environmental issues that there are two topics that tend to stir passion in the general public. “There are so many crucial issues, but it amazes me how deeply people feel about rivers and trees. It’s good to work with what we have, so I always start with those strong connections between people and nature.”

Just as the tiny plum tree matured to bear fruit, Wagner evolved into an effective organizer and leader, and she found like-minded tree-planting companions in Northfield as the town prepared to celebrate its 350th anniversary. They launched a project called Tree50th, and future Northfielders will thank the dedicated crew for making their town greener.

“Several of us actually started having conversations about Main Street trees a few years ago,” said Wagner. “We noticed some of the beautiful older trees were under stress due to a variety of factors, including salt on the roads, pests, and climate change.” Wagner attempted to strategize for tree action while on several town committees, “but it just didn’t move forward, because there were too many other things going on. But when plans for the 350th came up, the idea resurfaced.”

Wagner brainstormed about the possibility of planting 50 trees along Main Street; her husband, Mike LaRue, came up with the idea of calling the project Tree50th. Last year, Wagner attended a meeting of the Northfield Garden Club, of which she’s a member, and brought up the topic again. “It happened to be a really big meeting, and I threw out this wild and crazy idea. People loved the proposal, and five members offered to help.”

Since then, volunteers — spurred on by co-chairs Wagner and Pam Eldridge — have raised almost $8,000, “just by sending personal letters and doing a little bit of advertising,” said Wagner, who was pleased that her fellow Garden Club members shared her enthusiasm. “The primary focus of Club is to provide information to members through monthly programs, which almost always include site visits,” said Wagner. “We educate ourselves about techniques and approaches, mostly related to backyard gardens.” Club members also care for plantings on Main Street and are considering doing a raised bed garden at the town’s Senior Center.

“But trees are so essential,” said Wagner, whose career prior to retirement was in city planning with emphases on environmental considerations. She worked for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which facilitated the planting of over 29,000 street trees in a five-year period within the city of Pittsburgh. “The name of that project was TreeVitalize, and it was super successful,” said Wagner. “It was large scale, involving lots of contractors and our own forester. But volunteers were crucial, and it gave me confidence that this work can be done within communities.”

Even on smaller scales, however, the process can be quite complicated. “We need to get the right tree in the right place,” added Wagner, “which is every urban forester’s dream.” She credits Mary Chicoine, a Greenfield resident regionally famous for planting and protecting trees, for helping to move Tree50th forward, as well as Northfield’s Tree Warden, Tom Walker, who’s been “terrifically supportive.”

This past Saturday, the Tree50th group involved townspeople in two special projects: planting five evergreens to enhance the area behind the historic Town Fountain (just north of Town Hall), as well as two flowering trees at the site of the Veterans Memorial (just south of Town Hall) in anticipation of Veterans Day. Wagner stressed the significance of enhancing two historical and cultural landmarks flanking Town Hall.

Mary King, one of the organizers of Northfield’s 350th anniversary, credited history and culture as two reasons why she got involved. As coordinator of the History Focus Group, she helped plan more than 40 history-based events throughout the year. “We started out with programs about the Sokoki, the Indigenous people who lived here, and have tried to use the term commemoration rather than celebration in acknowledgment of those first people who had so much taken away.”

King lauded the Tree50th project: “It’s so wonderful! It commemorates and beautifies Northfield during the 350th year since Europeans first settled Squakheag.” King said the 350th committee “had been considering what lasting gift should be left to the town in honor of the anniversary. So when Judy Wagner and members of the Northfield Garden Club approached us about their desire to plant trees, we saw it as a win-win, the perfect gift for the future.” King had also felt concerned about many trees being lost through the years. “Our big historic town common, running along both sides of Main Street, deserves lovely, healthy trees that will stand up to our changing climate. Planting a lot of new trees is another way of reconnecting Northfield to its past and to the future.” King explained that “reconnecting Northfield” is the motto of the town’s commemoration committee.

King credited Stacy Bond, chair of the 350th committee, with being a driving force behind the larger project. When reached for comment, Bond stressed that events will continue to take place throughout the rest of 2023. “I’m grateful to Judy Wagner and another garden club member, Martha Tenney, for pitching the Tree50th idea. How could we say no?” said Bond. “We liked the idea of using the tree project as a way to leave a positive environmental impact that will last for generations to come!”

Tree50th co-chair, Pam Eldridge, who’s lived on Northfield’s Main Street for over 30 years, explained that the town has “a very wide Main Street, and much of the land — including people’s front yards — is actually DOT (Department of Transportation) property. There’s a right of way, a defining line, but for many people, it’s DOT land right up to their front doors. It’s really state land.”

Eldridge has witnessed many of the oldest trees die, both from normal factors and from environmental stressors. “There was a seemingly increased number of decaying and dead trees,” said Eldridge. “Our hope is to improve the streetscape and shade the sidewalk. Right now, there’s not a lot of protection from the sun if you’re strolling along Main Street.”

Anyone interested in more info on the project, or who would like to donate to it, should visit https://northfield350.org.

Donations will be used to purchase trees and supplies such as mulch or watering equipment to keep the trees healthy.

Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope” and an artist, musician and mom. She may be reached at eveline@amandlachorus.org.