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Speaking for the trees – Decatur’s arborist is known as a leader in her field

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Speaking for the trees – Decatur’s arborist is known as a leader in her field

Decatur City Arborist Kay Evanovich keeps a sprig of fir in her office. “It smells good, and I like trees,” Evanovich said. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This story has been updated.

Decatur, GA — Growing up in DeKalb County, Kay Evanovich would spend days outside hanging out in trees with her friends, watching the forest and the squirrels. They even named one of them Chester the Chestnut Tree.

“I’ve always loved trees,” Evanovich said. “[I’ve] had fun in trees my whole life.”

Trees have played many important roles in Evanovich’s life. Aside from climbing them, she met her wife underneath the large dawn redwood tree in front of Eddie’s Attic in downtown Decatur. They’ve been together for 27 years.

“I asked her to marry me under that tree because [the] day I met her, I stood under that tree and watched her walk to her car, thinking I want to be with somebody like that. A year and half, two years later, we were,” Evanovich said.

When she grew up, Evanovich wanted to be a forest ranger. Now she is protecting and managing Decatur’s urban forest as the city’s arborist.

“Go trees,” Evanovich said.

She’s been recognized as a leader in her field.

Evanovich was named the Georgia Arborist Association’s 2023 Arborist of the Year for promoting the arbor care industry through community engagement, implementation of Decatur’s updated tree ordinance, and doing so with passion and integrity.

Through the Georgia Arborist Association, she helps train other arborists. She serves on the board of the GAA as well.

“I was not expecting it,” Evanovich said of being named Arborist of the Year. “I talk [the GAA] up a lot because we need good arborists out there doing the work.”

Much of her job in Decatur involves reviewing site plans, meeting with people who want to build something on their lot and have trees, enforcing the tree ordinance, and inspecting the health of the city’s trees. Education is also a big part of her duties as the city’s arborist.

“A municipal arborist is the focal point for the trees for the community, so if there are problems with trees, planning for trees, doing arbor culture, that’s what we’re managing,” Evanovich said. “If I can get everybody to understand what trees actually need, if we really love them, you’ve got to love all of them and that’s the piece you can’t see underground too.”

Decatur City Arborist Kay Evanovich was named “2023 Arborist of the Year” by the Georgia Arborist Association. Photo by Dean Hesse.

The city commission updated its tree ordinance in 2022 to conserve and preserve more of the city’s tree canopy. The ordinance now requires developers to meet with Evanovich to make sure they meet the city’s tree conservation requirements.

“If you’re going to grow canopy, you have to save existing canopy and put in new trees. That’s the only way to grow canopy,” she said. “There’s a huge component for education with this new ordinance.”

She also has to balance the needs of trees with what the community and the building community want. She compared herself to the Lorax, a Dr. Seuss character who “speaks for the trees.”

“You’re balancing all three of those things, and you’re trying to be a little bit of a Lorax to keep the trees because you need a fair mix of [trees],” Evanovich said.

As new developments go up, it hasn’t always been easy to try to keep trees alive. Notably, as developments go up around Decatur’s public works building, where Evanovich’s office is, there are few trees nearby.

“Trees and construction has been the bane of my existence,” Evanovich said. “[There can be] the best laid plans, the best code, if you don’t have somebody out there doing it, it doesn’t matter what you have on paper. The education piece is huge at the beginning.”

Before joining the Decatur city staff seven years ago, Evanovich was the city arborist for Brookhaven. She started some of their tree-related programs, helped Brookhaven become a Tree City USA, and worked on the first iteration of their tree ordinance.

She’s held many different tree-related jobs over the years. At one point, Evanovich worked on a tree farm in Florida and got to learn about planting trees.

“Anytime I got to work with trees, I really enjoyed it,” she said.

When she moved back to DeKalb County from Florida, she started working for DeKalb County in code enforcement. At the time, the county opened a new branch for environmental protection.

She applied for the arborist certification around 2005. She also previously served as the chief of environmental building inspections for DeKalb County, and did tree health inspections as a private arborist before working for the county.

“I’ve been an arborist ever since, and I really enjoy this end of it,” Evanovich said. “I enjoy municipal arbor culture because I get to do something. I get to help plan saving trees, plan new trees coming in and helping the urban forest and educating people about trees and what they need.”

Mayor Patti Garrett said Evanovich is a champion for trees in the city.

“Kay works hard to not only to implement the most recent updated tree conservation ordinance fairly and competently, she also takes time with homeowners, builders and developers to review plans, offer suggestions and alternatives and does so in a professional and considerate manner,” Garrett said. “Her expertise and the manner in which she conducts her job means a lot to me as an elected official.”

Garrett added that Evanovich’s impact on the city can be seen through her work in preserving the existing canopy and making sure that new trees are planted and nurtured.

“She works closely with Trees Atlanta in the invasive removal program and tree replanting program in Legacy Park and throughout the city,” Garrett said. “The city is consistently named a Tree City USA and for the last few years has received the Tree City of the World designation. These designations and Kay’s recent honor of being named Georgia Arborist of the Year are testaments to her work in Decatur as well as the respect of her peers in her profession.”

Deputy City Manager David Junger added that Evanovich is a team player, a true professional, and is well-respected by her peers.

“Kay is an expert in her field and frequently teaches other professionals at her professional conferences and meetings,” Junger said. “Hence why she was selected as the Georgia Arborists Association Arborist of the Year for 2023. We are very proud to have Kay as our friend and colleague. Decatur is very fortunate to have such a knowledgeable arborist serving the community.”

Here’s a tip Evanovich has about caring for trees:

Evanovich wants people to know and understand that the biggest part of the tree is its roots underground.

“It’s got to have space, air and water in the soil in order for it to survive,” Evanovich said. “It’s hard enough in these clay compacted soils for trees to get what they need but the ones in a yard have a really tough time.”

She encourages people to not have grass all the way up to the trunk of the tree, but rather have no grass in the drip line and put down two inches of mulch. The drip line is where the rain drips off of the last limbs of a tree.

“The more you can give it in that area, the better the tree is going to do. Just putting down two inches of mulch and keeping it maintained at two inches thickness will help decompact soils naturally over time,” Evanovich said. “The grass takes everything the tree needs to survive.”

The root system of a tree almost looks like a spider web under the ground, which creates the strength to hold the tree in place.

“When we cut that soil or we compact the soil, the roots die. Then, when we get rain…our clays swell up and makes it loose now so all it takes is a little wind and over they go,” she said.

Here are a couple of upcoming tree events:

– The city is hosting an Arbor Day event on Saturday, Feb. 17, from 1-4 p.m. at Legacy Park to hand out seedlings. White oak, yellow poplar, persimmon and bald cypress seedlings will be available.

– The spring walking tour will be held on April 13 from 1-4 p.m. at the Decatur Cemetery.

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