A Time to Plant

Monique Pilié has planted a lot of trees. Let’s be more precise: Through her nonprofit organization, Hike for KaTREEna, Pilié has planted more than 2,175 trees in greater New Orleans. That would be one tree for every mile she hiked on the Appalachian Trail after the 2005 hurricane that lent her organization its name. Her hike, from Georgia to Maine, raised money –– and she translated that money into saplings. She then began planting those trees, one at a time, to replace the trees we lost.

Those young magnolias and crape myrtles at Earhart Boulevard and Jefferson Davis Parkway near the Blue Plate factory? You can thank Pilié for those. The slender cypress humanizing the median of Toledano Street between Broad and Claiborne, one of the most barren swatches of the city after the hurricane? Pilié again, aided by a squad of volunteers and donations from Starbucks.

So when it came time to offer advice on planting trees and shrubs, I naturally thought of Pilié. December and January are the ideal months to plant new trees and shrubs because these plants are dormant now. The same goes for relocating shrubs and young trees that are already in your garden. Plants aren’t expending energy now on the production of foliage, flowers or fruit, so they’re less stressed when you move them. There’s also less danger of having your newly planted live oak or quince baked alive now than in June or July.

I caught up to Pilié 35 trees into the planting along Toledano Street and got her to recount the way she goes about putting a new tree in the ground.

“First thing,” she says, “dig your hole twice as wide as your root ball and as deep as your root ball.” Once you do that, she says, you want to score the sides of your hole with the edge of your shovel, slicing shallow vertical lines up and down the inside of the hole. That’s so the roots can break into the hard earth that surrounds them. The next thing you want to do, she says, is take the tree and root ball out of the bucket and give the root ball a good vigorous massage. “Don’t be afraid; it’s
OK to break up the roots,” she says. “Trees are pretty sturdy.”  Next, stick the tree in the ground. Fill the hole halfway up with soil you took out. Firmly press it down with your hand or the back of your shovel. Then put the rest of the dirt in the hole, and press it down, too.

The last task, before watering, is to make a little levee around the edge of the area you’ve just planted. “Not a Corps of Engineers levee, I tell people, because you want it to hold water,” Pilié says with a sharp, I-know-that’s-not-funny kind
of laugh.  After that, she advises, stand up and admire what you’ve done. Before leaving the site, water the new trees in thoroughly and mulch the disturbed soil around their bases. Pilié uses pine straw for mulch but says that any mulch will do. Water thereafter once every other week in winter and once a week in summer until the trees are established.    

I did a little digging online and in gardening books and found that that’s really all there is to it. I’m a nut for adding fertilizer, bone meal and compost when I’m digging in plants, but this is not advisable when moving dormant trees and shrubs.

Adding compost or other organic matter is particularly ill-advised. Nitrogen-rich fertilizers should not be added to trees and shrubs until late winter, when plants are on the cusp of a new season. Adding nitrogen now could encourage them to grow, a development that would leave them puny come spring.

A native New Orleanian, Pilié rode out Katrina at her family’s tree-shaded retreat in Covington. After the storm, she spent five days chain-sawing her way through more than 100 downed trees just to get to the road. A focus on trees seemed a natural way to express her grief over the storm and its aftermath. More important, though, she saw it as a way to embrace a revolutionary new set of possibilities for New Orleans after the storm.

“We’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here, a chance to start new,” she says. “I thought there was no way I could come back to New Orleans and not give back.” Her work continues to show her a recovery that isn’t in the news, she says. “I know there’s a whole huge underground movement of people that are so dedicated to this city,” she says. “This is the best job I’ve ever had.”

Pilié reached her initial goal of planting 2,175 trees in greater New Orleans on Oct. 30. Her response was to revise her goal upward to 100,000 trees. That’s the estimated number of trees lost in 2005.

“A tree makes a great Christmas gift,” Pilié says. “I had one donor, a woman from Pennsylvania, who gave trees as gifts to everyone in her bridal party. It was pretty cool.” 

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