Oh, Baby Baby: Our Trees Are Wearing Diapers!

Posted: August 22, 2023

When you think about diapers, you probably think about babies, right? We do, too, but probably not in the same way as you. We’ve been talking about diapers recently, and babies using them, but those babies have been our trees. Yes, you read that correctly: the Science Museum’s juvenile trees have diapers!

In the past two years, we’ve planted 160 trees across our campus. In order to be transported to the Science Museum, some of these trees lost around two-thirds of their root system. That’s because the nursery where the trees were grown had to dig the tree out of the ground to get it ready for the move. While it does involve an element of loss, this is the best-practice way to grow and transport trees and enough of the root system remains to keep the sapling alive.

Without a complete and established root system, the transplanted trees aren’t able to fully support themselves and are dependent on the Science Museum’s caregivers. (Sounds just like human babies, right?!) Part of that care involves ensuring the trees are properly watered.

Two halves of a TreeDiapers: one has been soaked and is swollen with water, the other is dry and flat.

The saplings could need up to five years to establish a root system capable of sucking up the amount of water the trees need to stay healthy. As hardworking as he is, you can’t expect our horticulturist to maintain 160 trees all on his own, right? Enter: TreeDiapers!

Inspired by the science in disposable diapers, two Virginia-based engineers created TreeDiapers. Imagine a 36-inch, doughnut-shaped sack stuffed with a polymer to soak up and retain water. The TreeDiaper starts out flat and the polymer inside is dry and pellet-like. Soaking a TreeDiaper for a couple of hours in water makes it full and dense, transformed by the now gel-like polymer inside. Once full of water, the TreeDiaper is placed at the base of the sapling.

The absorbent polymer holds water for an extended period of time, releasing it slowly as the plant needs it. Tyler is a big fan of this innovative product because it allows him to go weeks between waterings! And the best part: unlike disposable baby diapers, the TreeDiaper is reusable. We can keep soaking them and putting them out over and over again so there’s no waste involved in using a TreeDiaper.

The TreeDiaper is sitting around the base of this baby tree waiting to be hidden under the mulch.

Having a water system like this is essential during the hot summer months when Richmond can sometimes go weeks without substantial rain, but with their ability to absorb snow melt in the winter, the TreeDiapers will continue to be beneficial even after the dry summer months.

Diapers on trees sounds like quite the sight, but you won’t catch our trees looking goofy! The TreeDiaper sits directly on the soil around the base of the tree but is hidden by a layer of mulch. While aesthetically it looks just like any other landscaped tree, underneath the mulch, a TreeDiaper is working away to provide severe weather protection. As a bonus, it also helps control weeds, too!

Needless to say, our current and future leafy residents are all thankful for this treeumph in material science!