How a Vermont startup is getting to the root of tree root problems

Published: Jan. 9, 2023 at 3:34 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A Vermont startup wants to help trees live longer, healthier lives by using technology.

It all started about 20 years ago when all the trees lining the street in Marie Ambusk’s neighborhood mysteriously died after a windstorm. Confused, Ambusk asked an arborist who pointed to root collar disorder, a defect within the trees’ roots.

She says local landscapers didn’t seem to care too much about the fate of the trees or avoiding the issue in the future.

After realizing the issue was more widespread than just her neighborhood, Ambusk set out to find a solution, which is now known as TreesROI.

Root defects impacting tree development-- it’s a topic that Marie Ambusk can’t seem to “leaf” alone.

“In the tree nursery industry, trees are generally grown in containers and when that happens, the trees’ roots don’t have enough room to develop properly,” Ambusk said.

While there are ways to nip those issues in the bud, Ambusk says it doesn’t often happen. As a result, trees can often have issues with their roots, killing them off at a young age, a problem that didn’t sit well with Ambusk.

“If it’s a good problem to solve, then it probably can be done with science and technology and a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck,” Ambusk said.

Now, she’s working with scientists to develop TreesROI through tech.

“Ground-penetrating radar-- it’s noninvasive and it’s very powerful,” she said.

Though ground-penetrating radar has been used to find tree roots when building roads or homes, it has not been used to find root defects before. But Ambusk says their tests have been promising, with the idea that the technology could look beneath the soil to provide a map of the trees’ roots and identify ones that need to be fixed or removed.

A major hurdle now-- funding. Ambusk says she’s in the process of applying for government grants to help speed things along.

“That will be very helpful, so we can hire programmers to write the software, algorithms that will actually be able to look at the trees’ roots that the radar can decipher. And we’ll train it to know whether it’s a good root or a bad root,” she said.

But Ambusk says she’s facing an even bigger challenge.

“Probably the single biggest hurdle that I see with this project is to find out who cares,” she said.

Ambusk says most nurseries and growers she’s spoken with haven’t really shown any interest in this technology or in fixing the issue. So she’s pivoting to the people who buy the trees, like municipalities, that would benefit from knowing if something was wrong.

“They are the ones who are paying money and often it’s taxpayer money for a municipality to buy the trees to plant along the streets and in the parks,” Ambusk said.

Burlington City Arborist V.J. Comai is familiar with the work of TreesROI, though he says Burlington doesn’t plant container-grown trees.

“The problem of trees being pot-bound or root-bound in their containers is widespread throughout the industry,” Comai said. “So when people go to buy a tree and they’re unaware of this potential problem and go ahead and plant it, the tree doesn’t have a long-term future.”

He does, however, say that it could be used for diagnostics of existing trees with root problems, but he has questions about the affordability and efficacy of the technology.

Ambusk says saving trees that could provide clean air and water, and saving the time, money and resources it takes to mature a tree would be worth the investment itself.

“My goal is to find enough municipalities who understand what we’re doing and now we’re offering them an opportunity to know what the quality of the tree roots system is before they actually plant it in the ground,” she said.

Should it come to fruition, TreesROI would have hardware and software components, and would likely be subscription-based. The actual logistics of the project remain to be seen as it still is in the early phases.