(Photo by Linda Arntzenius)
As municipal arborist and open space manager for Princeton Township, Greg O'Neil spends more time out and about in Princeton than he does behind his desk at the Department of Public Works on Witherspoon Street. The Boston native and Bridgewater resident typically spends an hour in the office and seven on the road taking care of plantings on Princeton Township's 16 and a half square miles. With an intimate knowledge of the town's flora that includes 13,000 street trees, he is reluctant to pick a favorite species but reveals a fondness for the white oak and for the tree known as the Washington Oak. Since the loss of Princeton's signature Mercer Oak, he has planted many of its descendents around town. Here, in his own words, he describes his work.
You never stop learning about trees. It's a lot like the medical profession very dynamic there's always something new coming down the road. Take the gypsy moth infestation that we discovered last year through the defoliation occurring at the upper canopy. A lot of people thought that it was cicada damage but it was a whole other insect that had reared its head again. There hadn't been a gypsy moth outbreak in Princeton for about 25 years, so this did come as somewhat of a surprise to us. We got caught a little off guard and so this year we decided to be a little more pro-active with spraying. The epicenter of the infestation was in the Riverside area where the egg masses, each with about 500 eggs, hatched on May 11. It put a lot of trees under significant stress. When a tree opens its leaves in the springtime, that takes a tremendous amount of energy, which the tree draws from reserves stored up from the previous season. Those reserves then drop and the tree uses photosynthesis to grow through the season and build up reserves for the next season. If that process is interrupted through defoliation, the tree has difficulties in the following season. It's like not getting enough sleep or not eating enough, you get run down. Now the trees are run down. So if we get a heavy drought, for example, we could be in a very serious situation. To recover from this sort of infestation, it normally takes between five to ten years.
The other problem we have right now primarily affects our oak trees. There is no treatment for bacterial leaf scorch. That's our main nemesis right now. It's not cyclical, so unlike gypsy moths, which will go away for a while, this disease continues. For a tree that is badly affected there's no choice but to remove it. I've been working with Rutgers University Plant Diagnostic Laboratory, and Jim Considine, the grounds manager at the University on this. Jim's a brilliant tree man with a wealth of knowledge.
I've worked for Princeton Township since 1997. Before that I worked for multiple tree companies as a tree climber or crew leader, doing tree removal, insect and disease control, fertilization, pruning, and planting. I'm a New Jersey certified tree expert and a certified arborist through the International Society of Arboriculture. I'm also a graduate of the American Society of Consulting Arborists [a group dedicated to the enhancement of the community and the protection of the environment] and I teach equipment and pesticide safety to people working in the public sector at the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation at Rutgers University.
I'm part of the department of public works and my crews are doing either park maintenance mowing, planting, weed control, work on trails, construction, or tree maintenance normally responsible for tree removal and planting. We normally try to set up for the following day so that we can get landscape or mowing crews out at the start of the workday around 7 a.m. The most challenging part of my job is simply trying to keep up with all the day-to-day activities, to make sure that everything is progressing satisfactorily, that we are keeping our residents happy, and working with them. I receive calls about street trees within the Township's right of way. Either there's a concern over the tree because it doesn't look healthy or because of a landscaping project or a home addition. People will call me and say "I think this tree is dying, can you come and look at it." Approval is needed for tree removal and there are four factors to consider: size, species, condition, and location. Trees 16 inches in caliper are not to be removed without a permit. Location usually plays the biggest role. If a tree has been struck by lightning, for example, it could be hazardous if it is near a house. Species is also important when someone wants to remove a tree to make way for a pool or home-addition. Usually people will work with us, especially when they realize they have a valuable tree on their property, such as a big beautiful white oak. Periodically we have to tell someone they can't take a tree down, if it's perfectly healthy and part of the Princeton streetscape canopy that we try to maintain, for example. We don't want to cause hardship, so we seek alternatives. Each year we do an Arbor Day celebration with the school district. Three years ago we planted cherry trees at Riverside School, replacing trees that had to be removed during renovation. When a storm comes through and a tree blocks a roadway we respond immediately. Typically we've had our worst storms in late summer or early fall. We had one my first year here, a Labor Day storm that came roaring through and wiped out a lot of trees. Birch Avenue was shut down for almost two days and the Battle Road area took a vicious hit. All the wood is recycled, either made into mulch or milled for use as boards on the sides of our trucks.
This is a great community to work for. I get asked a lot of good intelligent questions, sometimes questions that I might not have the answer for and have to go look up. Residents ask about the growth habits of trees, during our road improvement project plantings. People are interested in all facets of what is going on. That makes my job easier, because we want people to feel satisfied with what they are getting. I will tell people to walk around the local nursery and find something that they like and come and tell me about it and we'll put it in. I enjoy working for Princeton. The people are great. I hope to stay here until I retire.
Much of the satisfaction I derive from my job stems from the fact that our administration and the Township committee allow us to do our jobs and support us. Princeton is a very different community in that respect. They have confidence in what we do. We don't have to run back for permission for every little thing that we do. That is somewhat rare. In many other communities it is very difficult to get things done without getting approval from a higher authority. Also seeing a resident who is made happy by what we do, from someone who calls up and gets free professional advice about a particular tree to a big replanting job involving hundreds of trees that everyone is enthusiastic about. For trail maintenance we utilize summer employees to tackle invasive species. All of our parks and trails have an amazing amount of invasive species such as the multiflora rose. If a tree or a plant is placed in the proper setting, it's perfect. Take the sweet gum tree, which makes a mess and is a bizarre choice for a street tree but along a wood's edge it's spectacular: a beautiful hardy tree with glorious fall color. Placement is key. That's all there is to it.
Respect for Mother Nature
I grew up in Norwood, a suburb of Boston, and I wound up in New Jersey because I fell in love with my wife, Maureen. We met at Marquette University in Milwaukee and I came back with her to New Jersey in 1987. Maureen is a special education teacher for Bernards Township and we have two boys: Connor is 12 and Kyle is 8. My parents James and Patricia still live in Norwood and one or two times a year I get up to the Boston area. I love to spend time on the beach. We go to the Point Pleasant area. We are big Rutgers fans. I've attended a lot of courses there and I teach classes there. I'm a football fanatic Fall is my favorite time of the year because the foliage is changing and it's football season and I coach football and basketball in Bridgewater. I'm a pretty straightforward guy and this line of work is perfect for me. As a kid I was rarely indoors. I thought about being a police officer but when I was 15 I started mowing lawns and got into landscaping. I love being outdoors. That's the best part of my job. It's enjoyable to be outdoors in all kinds of weather. But you have to learn to deal with the elements and work with Mother Nature. You can't work against her, otherwise you get beat.
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