Marie Ambusk spent forty years working behind a desk as an accountant, but when she retired from GE Healthcare, the Hinesburg resident followed her passion to the great outdoors as a tree steward. “It was an interesting segue,” she said. “Part of the job I had was maintaining the hierarchy of our financial system, which is like a tree. The function was actually called Tree Manager, so it’s been an interesting evolution.”
In 2007, Ambusk started the TREEage (pronounced “triage”) volunteer project in South Burlington, where she used to live. “We have an amazing collaboration with the city, and the city arborist, where our volunteers work on the street trees to prune and mulch them,” she said. “We started a tree nursery so now the city uses these trees as replacements when the street trees die. We’ve grown and taken care of 200 trees.”
After moving to Hinesburg in 2012, Ambusk expanded the project to her new home. In addition to her volunteer work, she runs a tree and garden maintenance business called Shades of Green. Many of her clients are her former South Burlington neighbors.
In 2012, Ambusk took a leap of faith and started Trees ROI which stands for Root of It. “A lot of urban trees have problematic root systems,” she said “but it’s hard to fix what you can’t see. With my volunteer hat, I painstakingly remove the soil and try to fix things, but if I had a crystal ball to look into the soil it would make my life easier.”
Ambusk put together a startup company with a research team of scientists and industry experts to develop a tool for wholesale tree nurseries to look at the roots in container trees using a non-invasive microwave tomography tool called Root Tomo. “Wholesale growers have 65 to 70 percent of their trees in containers,” she said “and if they’re left too long, they develop circular roots and end up strangling themselves when they get planted.”
The company’s goal is to develop a three-dimensional visualization tool and build a software algorithm so the defective roots show up in a different color. “Nursery workers can fix the bad root systems,” Ambusk said “and then we’ll plant trees with healthy roots systems which will grow and thrive and live for 100 years instead of ten.”
Her hope is that use of the tool will be widespread enough that there can be a certification system for root quality. Last year, Ambusk had a benign brain tumor removed, and she likens the MRI to what she wants to do for tree roots. “I kind of feel looking back now that everything I’ve done in my life has led me to this path,” she said.
Ambusk noted that when you look at a mature tree in a forest, you wonder what influence a human can have, but in urban communities, residents plant street and backyard trees and really do have control over whether or not they thrive. The motto for TREEage is “making a difference in our community, one tree at a time.”
“There is a lot that we humans can do to preserve trees,” Ambusk said. “I can’t let go of the notion that we can grow better trees.”