It started with offering up her home for a fundraiser for Trees for Georgetown, years later Betsy Emes has become so involved in the well-being, care and advocacy on behalf of Georgetown's trees that she has been called (in a good way) a "tree Nazi." The better description might be tree advocate.
For Emes trees are a part of her every day; she says she cannot help but notice them and catalog them as she walks her dogs or strolls along the Georgetown streets near her home.
As we walked along several streets in Georgetown's West Village she pointed out the various trees that Trees for Georgetown had planted in recent years.
Some, like those on the 3400 block of Dent Pl., she very proudly pointed to like a parent pleased with the success of a child. This block of Dent Place is her favorite, "I know that if a tree is planted on that block, it’s going to get taken care of," she explained.
Others she lamented for their failure to thrive — through no fault of their own. One, a tree planted on 33rd Street just East of Wisconsin Avenue (behind Jennifer Convertibles), looked frail and half dead. Emes bemoaned the fact that this poor tree had the misfortune of not having anyone willing to water it and nourish it.
"We are obliged to water and take care of our trees," she explained.
Though Emes is now seen as Georgetown's tree lady — an unofficial title she is happy to accept, "if you are going to do a job do it well" — her fervor for trees has been an evolution, not a passion from day one.
That is to say, her husband did not become "the tree widower" (his description, not hers) over night.
When she first took over as the head of Trees for Georgetown, Emes admits, "I didn’t really know anything about trees." But she was a quick study.
When Emes stopped working at the World Bank, she decided she wanted to work with the orchids in the U.S. Botanical Gardens. But to do so, she needed to be a master gardener. So she enrolled in a class at UDC and became one.
Similarly, when she took over at Trees for Georgetown, she enrolled in Casey Trees' citizen foresters program to learn how to care for street trees.
"She has lots of green thumbs," said Jim Woodworth, director of tree planting at Casey’s.
Keith Pitchford, the certified arborist who works with Trees for Georgetown to ensure the right tree is in the right place, said of Emes, "She’s really good...so incredibly thorough." Thorough to the point that she has even taken on some of the work the organization used to pay him to do for them, he admits.
Emes works with Pitchford, D.C.'s Urban Forestry Administration and the community to identify spaces for new trees.
Each year the group organizes just one fundraiser, which determines how many trees they can add that planting season. Then Emes and Pitchford make their annual pilgrimage to Orange, Va. where they select saplings from a list of street-hardy trees.
Once the planting season arrives, Casey Trees arranges for the hand-picked trees to be delivered to their yard and then they come out and plant the trees in the community.
Of the tree and site-selection process, Pitchford says that Emes has really taken on the task of diversifying the street tree population in Georgetown.
"I would say that’s probably the most progressive thing she has done," he said.
Working together, they have diversified the neighborhood's treescape from a monoculture of elms and maples to one that now includes London Plane, Sweet Gum and others. Thinking about more than just the aesthetics sets Emes apart in her efforts on behalf of Georgetown.
Woodworth had high praise for Emes's approach to both the trees themselves and the tree boxes. Tree boxes, if you ask Emes and Woodworth, are a pain point in the world of street trees.
Emes listed issues around the tree boxes — people building boxes with four brick walls, people planting flowers and grasses in tree boxes, and lack of enforcement when people build up the tree boxes — among her frustrations with her work.
According to both Emes and Woodworth, for safety reasons and for the health of the trees, there should only be three sides to any tree fence and the only thing that should be inside the fence, besides the tree, is mulch. But not everyone agrees.
"It has been a painful effort," to educate and enforce these standards, said Woodworth. Much of that effort has fallen to Trees for Georgetown and much of the "educating" is done by Emes.
"It’s just awful sometimes," she said, cringing at some unpleasant memory of an encounter with a homeowner who was trying to "improve" a treebox.
"She’s a member of the choir," said Woodworth about Emes's attitude towards Georgetown's tree boxes.
Under her leadership, the organization continues to grow and thrive, Georgetown receives new and more diverse trees every year, and the streetscape improves through education and efforts by the community.
"I’m working as hard or harder than I worked at the World Bank, and that was hard work there," said Emes with a laugh.
Those who know her work agree. "She’s a whirlwind of enthusiasm and energy," said Woodworth.
As we sat down for coffee at The Bean Counter the sunny afternoon of our meeting, the barista asked if we wanted paper to-go cups or mugs.
"Mugs," said Emes, adding with a smile, "Save a tree."