The Tree Lady

by Terry Kramer

In California we celebrate Arbor Day March 7 to honor Luther Burbank's birthday by planting trees. But every day is Arbor Day for local tree grower Carol Williams. Deep respect and love for trees coaxed Williams into starting a tree nursery, Fickle Forest Tree Farm, five years ago.

"I've always loved trees and have felt some kind of connection with them. They give me a sense of peace," she explained.

It seems a horticultural paradox that the roots of Arbor Day took hold in a vast, treeless prairie state. Yet, it was a newspaper editor transplanted to Nebraska from Michigan, homesick for trees, who started a celebration now appreciated throughout the United States. Through the efforts of J. Sterling Morton, the first Arbor day began April 10, 1872 in Nebraska where it was estimated more than 1 million trees were planted in communities and farms. School children planted most of the trees.

"Each generation takes the earth as trustees. We ought to bequeath to posterity as many forests and orchards as we have exhausted and consumed," Morton said. Today this nationally celebrated observance encourages tree planting and care.

Each Arbor Day Williams and her family plant a tree. She started the tree nursery because she wanted "to make the land work for itself," and remain at home to care for her five children.

"We had property taxes and we thought we should have something up here that could produce and help with its upkeep. And I love growing trees . It is the best job I've ever had. Plus we value the quality of life for our family. I can always be home for the kids and if anything happens I'm always here," Williams explained.

Patrons of Arcata's Saturday Farmers Market know Williams as "the tree lady" who surrounds herself with a miniature forest of young trees she's grown from seedlings. There she peddles trees in five-gallon cans. It takes time, often from three to five years, and sometimes longer, to grow a tree from seedling to a plantable size. But Williams believes in producing husky, stout trees.

"People usually want a five gallon tree with a trunk 1/2 inch in diameter. I like growing them up (to this size) because you get a much better branch structure," she explained.

Williams grows more than 30 different species of trees. Many are natives such as vine maple, Fremontadendron, dogwood, cedars and firs. Birch, liquidamber, dawn redwood and maple populate her nursery also. And since the nursery is situated in the middle of deer nation, Williams knows what trees can survive their feasting. In her experience, published lists of deer-proof plants are not reliable, she said. Williams performs the taste test.

"I experiment with growing things that are deer resistant. I'll grow the trees, set them out and then if I find them stripped, well, there you go."

Trees that deer nibble on but don't destroy include vine maple, red and pin oak, spruce and big leaf maple, conifers and red cedar. Some fast-growing trees, such as birch and big leaf maple deer will nibble , but because the trees grow rapidly they are able to withstand the onslaught, she said. Deer-proof trees in her yard include Mugo and shore pine along with magnolia grandiflora, Grecian laurel and California myrtle. Williams recommends protecting trees the first two years just to be on the safe side.

Choose a tree grown by Williams and chances are good you will get a lesson on how to plant it. "I like to grow trees that are going to do well for people because I want them to be happy with their tree. Planting a tree is an investment and it is really disappointing when you plant one that never looks like you wanted it to look," she said.

"Site selection is really important. You need to consider where you are going to plant, how tall it will get, and more importantly how wide the tree is going to spread. Make sure there is room to plant other things around it." Dig large, wide holes in well-drained soil, she advised.

"And you need to water young trees during the summer for the first couple of years. Once a tree is established they really don't need too much care," she said.

Rows upon rows of containerized young trees sit nestled beneath towering redwoods and firs at Williams' nursery. Stellar's jays flap and squawk amongst the branches. A giant Pacific Coast salamander slithers between pots. The nursery of trees gives Williams her peace.

"When I wait for my son to get off the bus I stand up on the road looking at the trees and they just make me feel so good," she said.

"Trees make you feel strong. They give you a kind of strength. And they are very humbling."


Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer and owner of Jacoby Creek Nursery.