Local tree expert takes 'em down and puts 'em up. Helping residents understand the best trees to plant.
On an early September morning, the Ridgefield tree warden’s phone rings three times in five minutes. Ever since the destructive storms of 2011 and 2012 wreaked havoc on our electricity-dependent lifestyles, Ridgefield residents reach for the phone whenever a dead branch is poised to interrupt their 21st-century lives. Fortunately, John Pinchbeck is there to answer the calls.
Born and raised in Ridgefield, Pinchbeck comes from a long line of dendrophiles—his family owned and operated a nursery for 35 years. He has an expert’s perspective on why Ridgefield’s trees are special compared to those of neighboring towns. “The old estates on Nursery Road, Limekiln, Manor Drive, and Bennetts Farm competed with each other to have unique tree specimens,” he says. “There was a very famous nursery in Ridgefield, Outpost Nursery, which supplied the trees for the World’s Fairs of 1938 and 1964.”
Although most of those grand houses are no longer in evidence and the nurseries are closed, the trees stand as testament to Ridgefield’s horticultural past. In fact, the town once cultivated its own nursery on Halpin Lane until it realized that the nursery wasn’t on town land and had to transplant all of the young trees.
Working closely with residents, Parks & Recreation department, various tree companies, Caudatowa and Ridgefield garden clubs, and an active group of volunteers on the Ridgefield Tree Committee, Pinchbeck is serious about the care of our trees. Under his direction, the town plants about 25 to 35 trees a year, and Pinchbeck is always on the lookout for good places to plant them—such as a prime spot in front of the new library. Residents buying memorial trees to provide living legacies to loved ones has also increased the number of trees planted each year.
Joe Eltz, a member of the Ridgefield Tree Committee, describes working with Pinchbeck: “In addition to John’s extensive knowledge of trees, he also has a lot of interesting facts and stories about the town’s history and people. I learn something new every time we meet.”
Some Ridgefield residents have had a chance to tour Ballard Park with Pinchbeck, where his horticultural and historical knowledge is on display. He likes to point out the redbud to the left as you walk into the park from the CVS parking lot, a weeping beech off to the right, the Japanese scholar tree in front of you, and the “wonderful” fernleaf beech. Pinchbeck would tell you how Mrs. Ballard’s daughter provided funds to plant an oak, and the Accolade elm that was donated by Barlett’s Tree Experts. “We planted the Metasequoia in the early 1980s,” he explains. “The sweet gum has beautiful fall color, but the only problem is its spiky seed capsules.”
He would recollect watching the demolition of Mrs. Ballard’s house in 1964 and how the foundation is still under the park. “At the time, we thought the house was huge, but it wasn’t so big compared to the houses they build now,” he says. He might also tell you about the time that an underground drainage ditch backed up and flooded the frozen-food section of the old Grand Union grocery store.
As caretaker of Ridgefield’s arboreal splendor, Pinchbeck says he fights a “constant battle—people and weather” as well as deer, road salt, and improper mulching techniques, which can hurt trees. He casts himself as a kind of warrior—and has the battle scars to prove it. When he was an arborist, he fell out of a tree and broke three vertebrae. “Then I built a house right around the corner from that tree,” he admits.
He is always trying new cultivars to adapt to a changing climate. “We’ve been planting Green Mountain sugar maples on Main Street, which are more resistant to heat and dry weather,” he explains.
Since Pinchbeck’s time for tours is limited, residents should consult two available books—Ridgefield’s Notable Trees, updated in 2010, and Ridgefield’s Trees of Interest, published this fall. The new book features descriptions mostly written by Ridgefield High School ninth-grader Callie McQuilkin, whose father, Chris, is on the tree committee. A great family-friendly activity could be a tour of the trees cited in the book, like the Camperdown elm on Manor, a particularly interesting specimen that can be enjoyed from the road.
After rattling off the name of every tree in Ballard Park and the approximate date it was planted, Pinchbeck is asked if people call him to get advice on trees they should plant. He responds with telltale modesty, “They call me, but I can’t remember any of the names.”