Around the world, people who plant trees are celebrated. In the US there is Johnny Appleseed. The French have a (fictional) story called “The man who planted trees” about a shepherd who single­handedly replants a clear­cut alpine valley over the course of a long life. There is also a true story, from Burkina Faso (one of the poorest countries in the world) where an observant, illiterate farmer named Yacouba Sawadogo transformed tens of thousands of desert acres into thriving forests by planting trees. We, in Needham, also have a true story, on a smaller scale, of a woman who has been planting trees for almost 50 years, helping to make our town greener and more beautiful.

Native Azalea and Mountain Laurel in full bloom in Sharon and Len’s front yard

I went to visit Sharon and Len in their lovely 1911 house a few weeks ago. Sitting in the warm daylight from their south­-facing bay ­window Sharon told me that her love for plants goes way back (Len confirms that everything Sharon plants gets to be about twice its usual size thanks to her green thumb). In 1970, when she and Len moved to this house with their small children, the first thing Sharon did was to replace most of the front lawn with flowers ­­and evergreen groundcover, making it a game for herself to have something in bloom all season long ­­ and keeping a small lawn in the back yard as a play area for the kids, with a playhouse and a rope ladder. For the small amount of grass remaining, a manual push mower sufficed and still does. Over time, Sharon learned more about trees and shrubs through courses at the Arnold Arboretum. When the children were older and Sharon had started taking courses at the New England Wildflower Society’s Garden-in-the-Woods in Framingham, Sharon transformed the back yard with native plants, which she always tries to use now. When I visited, the flowering dogwood, viewed from the giant kitchen picture­ window, was in full bloom (rescued as a sapling from the old Carter family mansion on their street which had burned down).

But Sharon’s tree­ planting extends far outside of her yard. On their street, when a tree dies, or a new house goes up without trees, Sharon goes and talks to her neighbor about planting a new tree. Some of the neighbors were not receptive, but others have been. Over the years, Sharon has planted more than 20 trees for those neighbors, including volunteers from her own yard and free trees from the Arnold Arboretum. Today, the street is cooler and greener thanks to this neighborhood outreach. Moreover, everyone in Needham benefits from Sharon’s efforts:  About 10 years ago, Sharon reached out to Ed Olsen, the then new director of Parks and Forestry. Ed Olsen started a tree-planting program in Needham that allows residents to request that the Town plant a free tree on their berm or in their front yard. Sharon wrote a brochure that highlights the details and benefits of this tree-planting program; the brochure is available at the Parks and Forestry Office.

To care for all of her plants, Sharon uses just a small bottle of Neptune’s Harvest Fish & Seaweed Fertilizer (available at the Needham Garden Center) and irrigates new plants with rain collected in the rain barrel. Besides this, and love, her plants get an annual top­dressing of home compost (Sharon’s method:  In the Fall, make a big pile of healthy leaves (no diseased leaves) in a hidden, shady spot. Just bury the kitchen vegetable waste in this pile over the year, except in deep Winter. In the Spring, turn this pile over onto an adjacent spot; keep adding kitchen waste to the new pile during the Spring and Summer. Use the compost that had formed at the bottom of the first pile for new plantings and top-dressing. Next Fall, turn the second pile back onto the original spot and add the new Fall batch of leaves. Spread the compost from the bottom of the second pile on the vegetable garden to finish decaying through the Fall and Winter.)

This “Neighbor Spotlight” is one of a series about ordinary people in Needham doing extraordinary things to be a better neighbor to planet Earth.  Please be inspired!

Babette Wils is a Needham resident and active Green Needham volunteer. Babette is stepping down from a career in international education consulting and stepping into a career as a food forest farmer. Read more from Babette at her BigFoot Gardens blog.

Neighbor Spotlight: The woman who plants trees

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