Client Testimonials

"Howard Gaffin is an expert in his field. He is a top notch arborist and is also willing to listen to the land-owner's desires and is able to cooperate to achieve mutually satisfactory results."

N. Grigg
- Boxford, MA


Island Re-Tree

Originally published in Arborist News.

It was a sound more associated with a group of girl scouts at a smores party than with 40 + year old men. As we all stood around it, Johnny O correctly identified the snake as a Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus), but was unaware that, when threatened, they have been known to rear up to their full length and charge at people in attempt to frighten them. I am here to tell you that defense mechanism works.
One of the perks of volunteering here is a tour of different parts of this unique place. We encountered the snake during an extracurricular excursion. There are only 30 or so houses on this island off the Massachusetts coast, mostly seasonal residences. There are few roads and no pavement, yet in the midst of a forest thick with American beech, Oak, Tupelo and (my personal favorite) Greenbrier, lay the Hosmer Arboretum, a three- acre site enclosed with a deer fence.
Like their father, Ned and Marc Colt are the type of individuals that are hard not to like; gregarious, engaging and welcoming. Back in 1990, Ned came upon a fenced in, heavily wooded area of about three acres on the property of his extended family. It had a single, locked gate. A little investigating revealed it to be a tree nursery/arboretum, that had been somewhat cleared, then fenced in and planted in the mid-1950s by relatives and their friends.
I am a relative newcomer to the annual pilgrimage here. When my good friend and fellow arborist John DelRosso (head arborist at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston) invited me to join him here five years ago, I was unsure what to expect. I had no illusions of grandeur but my initial reaction was still somewhat muted. A few nice looking trees were located close to the entry. A Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), and Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) stood out prominently. There were some nice Stewartia, and a one-sided Big-Leaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla), but aside from that, I could not see the Arboretum for the trees.
The over-story is primarily American beech, with a smattering of oak, maple, ash and white pine. A guided tour from my colleagues revealed dozens of trees planted over time, suffering in various degrees from the suffocating influence of the over-story trees, both above and below. I came across specimens of Metasequoia and Bald Cypress over 20 years old no taller than me. “You have to understand,” stated Johnny O, “when I first got here, it was choked with beech trees and greenbrier. I had to cut a path just to get in. What you see here is a vast improvement.” Oh.
The property has been left in Trust and any changes require approval of a number of relatives who sit on a board of Trustees. In order to work in the Arboretum, says Ned “I figured I'd have better luck finding approval by associating myself with a pro... and in New England... no one takes issue with Harvard's Arnold Arboretum. I went to their front office, outlined my needs, and was summarily sent to go see a man at the top of a white pine.” This man was my friend and former classmate, John Olmsted.
That was 21 years ago, and that relationship, along with the struggling Arboretum, began to grow. Now, once a year, they come. A few arborists and horticulturists, a mason, some friends and resident volunteers all convene for a long weekend of hard work, and, well, partying.
The fore-mentioned Metasequoia was the first tree planted by Ned and his father on that first work weekend. It was 5 foot tall when planted, and it is now…..5 feet tall. To quote Ned, “It's not easy when you work two days a year in a sandy, salty, soil poor environment. That said, dozens of other trees have adapted and done considerably well.”
We are volunteers, but the Colts’ gracious hospitality makes this experience most enjoyable. We are provided with comfortable sleeping arrangements, excellent dining experiences, and plenty of beverages. We spend a full day and a half at the Arboretum, and usually spend some of the remaining time exploring the island.
Saturday morning, the truck is loaded with all the usual implements of destruction. An ancient chipper is hooked up to an even older tractor for the half mile journey to the site. There is no grand scheme here. Trees, mostly beech, are removed, and new ones are planted and documented. It is rather a haphazard approach, but only one weekend per year is spent here, and you do what you can. Most of the small and medium beech trees have been removed. We have spent the last 3 or so years concentrating on removing some of the larger ones, and the increased sunlight is beginning to show its effect.
The new trees are usually provided by Johnny D and the Arnold Arboretum, the Colts, or Todd Burns, a horticulturist at Wellsley College, in MA. Todd has been heading up the “offering of sacrificial plants” here for years. A wide variety of trees and large shrubs have been deployed here, but the going is tough. Todd basically looks for spots where decaying wood chips and forest litter may have created enough of a soil niche for some of these plants to live. Dig the hole and throw it in, one good soaking and they’re on their own.
There isn’t really any leader, per se, but I think we look to Johnny O for initial guidance and a basic plan for the day. The Johns and I embark on some tree removal, while Todd, Mark, and Tim (one of the most tireless workers I have encountered) begin the systematic annihilation of the underbrush. While prepping some gear, I notice Tim and Todd performing what appears to be some type of dance ritual followed by running. I figure this is a tradition I’m unaware of until all 6 foot 5 inches of Tim hit the turf. Apparently some yellow-jackets took offense to the mowing operation. Todd is stung several times and the swelling produces a cankle. He will self- medicate later.
Once some of the larger trees are on the ground, the volunteers from the island lend a hand hauling brush, chipping, and moving wood. Lunch is graciously provided and consumed. We then assess our progress, and decide on a plan for the afternoon. Today, I set my sites on a large red maple that has been overshadowing a Big-Leaf Magnolia. It has been bothering me for years and it’s time had come. Steve Shneider, Director of Operations at the Arnold, is my ground man. Two sweaty hours later, the maple is topped out, and I haven’t got hurt or broken anything. The volunteers make short work of the brush.
The tree planting started here in the early 50’s with some family members and a friend by the name of Henry Hosmer, of Sudbury, Massachusetts. Hurricanes and gales in 1938, 1944, and 1945 decimated large tracts of forest on the island. Except for beech sprouts, the island was fairly devoid of trees, enhanced by the work of sheep and deer. Species such as eastern white pine, hemlock, white spruce and sugar maple, native to the mainland, but not the island, were planted. Ned describes Hosmer as an armchair botanist. He had a day job, but he absolutely loved trees.
Anyone who would attempt to establish an Arboretum here certainly looks on the sunny side of life. The bony, dry soil offered little in organic matter. Greenbrier would forever be on the edge, ready to pounce. Critters would sample the newly planted. Drought, salt air, and wind would be an issue. But...what the hell.
A number of arboretum trees had been transplanted to other properties on the island over time, but some of the pine and spruce planted still thrive here. Other specimens were uncovered over the years, including a copse of Stewartia, some of which have doubled in height, once provided some sun.
We head back to Ned’s house for an evening of “copious consumption of good food and drink”, punctuated by a ribald game of croquet. All the volunteers and others from the island attend. The next morning we are back at the arboretum for one more round.
While no crown jewel, the arboretum is clearly beginning to show improvement. Today, there are over 100 different plants. New plants are tagged and documented, previous sacrifices located and checked. The removal of large over-story trees has greatly improved growth. Years of chipping have enhanced the soil, and the undergrowth has been beaten into submission. The annual event has been moved from June to September, and this appears to be having a positive effect on the survival of new plantings.
There are likely thousands of small arboretums like this throughout the United States. For some of us, the fascination with trees is inborn. We may see them as symbol of strength and fortitude that radiate humble nobility. Perhaps they’re a touchstone for generations, an unmoving sentinel that marks the passage of time. Every Arbor Day, Massachusetts Arborists Association (MAA) members take part in a statewide volunteer effort called Arbor Day of Service. The annual service day allows tree care professionals to have a direct impact in their local communities and draws attention to the importance of proper tree care and tree planting. Originally, one site was picked which we all convened upon. Now members are encouraged to find their own worthy sites, and dozens of parks, schools, town commons, and other venues benefit from our services.
Perhaps there is a small arboretum in your town that could benefit from your services. The annual pilgrimage to the island has become a tradition of camaraderie and good times. The cultivation of friendships, as well as trees, is realized, along with the innate good feelings that go with participating in a positive enterprise.
While there is promise for the future of the Hosmer Arboretum, a quick glance at our aging crew may give one cause for concern. “I do worry about what will happen after we're no longer able to hoist ourselves up in a tree or lift a chainsaw” says Ned. “I'd like to see the tradition continue.
We are working at getting younger folk involved in the process, and I'm hopeful that someone will step forward to continue organizing an annual "Work Weekend" when we're no longer able to do so. It's a rewarding experience in so many ways”.


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