Man keeps loving watch over ancient oak

February 21, 2019

Arborist Rusty Bolen has spent seven years helping safeguard and care for a Compton oak in League City that once drew international attention.

For nearly a century, the tree grew on the property of the immigrant Ghirardi family. To make way for a street widening, the city decided in 2012 to undertake the monumental task of moving the tree a quarter-mile to Ghirardi WaterSmart Park — a project that was videotaped and attracted widespread news coverage.

Bolen, superintendent of park operations for League City, has since watched after the massive tree, which is continuing to grow despite challenges that have included drought, disease and loss of part of its root system.

Parks and nature have been a part of Bolen’s family for nearly as long as he can remember.

“My grandfather worked for the (Galveston County) parks department,” he said. “So did my grandmother. He retired from the county with 20 years and my grandmother retired with 10. My grandfather was park keeper at Walter Hall Park.”

His father was the resident keeper at Lobit Park.

“So basically, I had a 26-acre park for my front yard, which was awesome,” Bolen said. “Growing up, I remember always going out in the park with my dad and assisting him in keeping the park clean. I spent a lot of my childhood outside.”

In 1990, at 19 years old, Bolen began working for League City’s parks department. He moved up within the department over the years and by 2008, just before Hurricane Ike hit, Bolen was named the superintendent of park operations. He became an arborist in 2002.

That was one of the reasons Bolen was in the group of people designated to care for the Ghirardi Oak during and after its move.

Being an arborist involves knowing the biology of trees, he said.

“Knowing how the tree uptakes nutrients, being able to put proper measures for fertilization into place, identification — not only of the trees themselves but also diseases, being able to identify insects and potential infestations, how to prune them properly, lightning protection — there are so many aspects of being an arborist,” Bolen said.

Bolen has been tasked with checking on the tree to assure its health and longevity.

“Of course, a large majority of the root system was located under Louisiana Street; so we lost a lot of those, which means we had some dieback in the beginning,” he said.

Bolen also found that after a while in the ground, the tree was exhibiting signs of an illness caused by sitting in water which isn’t draining.

“Our soil here basically makes a clay bowl, and for a long time after you move a tree of this size, the soil isn’t settled,” he said. “This means that any water will collect in that bowl and become stagnant and the roots sit in it, which damages the tree.”

Drainage, moisture meters and a sump pump were brought in and are in place to safeguard tree. Bolen periodically checks on the tree, measuring its growth and reporting his findings to residents and the city administration.

“In the past two years we’ve started seeing some huge strides,” he said. “It’s starting to encapsulate old wounds, we’re seeing a lot of new growth and we’re seeing larger and larger acorns, which are all good signs that the tree is regaining its strength. In fact, it’s growing at a rate which may mean we’ll have to start pruning it again soon.”