How to Plan a Native Arbor Day Project on the Cheap
BY: Laurie Lomas Gonzales
Lower Trinity Basin Master Naturalist
An Arbor Day is not a one day project. Prior to planting, a year of investment goes into the project, but the benefits last a lifetime. A project to be planted in November 2020, actually starts in October 2019. That’s right, one full year. Remember, these trees come from acorns and seeds. The acorns of local oak trees should be harvested from trees to maintain the local genetics (provenance) of the species. For example, the acorns of the live oak trees for our project were harvested from the Liberty Downtown City Square and the acorns of water and willow oaks were harvested from the Liberty Municipal Park. These acorns and American persimmons seeds were harvested from Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge. This ensures the trees will be well-suited to grow in our conditions.
Once acorns are collected, conduct a float test. Those that sink it water are sound. Keep those. Those that float have already sustained damage, mostly from insects.
Not all seeds are planted at the same time. You need to learn the life history of the seeds you are planting. For example, live oak acorns need to be planted in pots immediately and tended to all winter long. On the other hand, the other acorns get placed in a household refrigerator over the winter to scarify, a process which these deciduous seedlings go through to improve their chances of germinating during optimal conditions in the spring. Other seeds, such as red bud, should be boiled to scarify them before placing them in cold storage. Also, pine seeds can be harvested from closed pine cones by heating them in the oven at about 200 degrees for 30 minutes. When in doubt, refer to youtube!
The funny thing about trees is that after you plant them in pots and you never know what will pop up or not pop up! If squirrels are frequent visitors to your yard, cover your pots with hardware cloth to prevent acorns from being poached.
Remember those pots with live oak acorns that sat out all winter? Well, Mother Nature is a bountiful trickster. While only oak acorns were harvested for the project, the seedlings of boxelder, American sycamore, cedar elm, American Elm, and Green Ash trees may grow in too. The seeds of these trees have wings which help them fly through the air and land in places suitable for growing. The ones that landed in rich potting soil win the lottery. Sometimes as many as 30 seedlings may be found in a pot once germination begins.
Volunteer seedlings which germinate in pots are not weeds, they are a goldmine! They boost the number of trees you are growing and the diversity of trees for the project. An added bonus, the volunteer trees are the faster growing trees. Well-cared for volunteers can grow 2 feet before they are planted in the ground. By the next year, they can even grow up to 4 feet tall. If you are lucky enough to have volunteers pop up, separate them and move them to their own pots. And, if an acorn didn’t germinate, no big deal because plenty of other seedlings have ‘volunteered’ for the project. Keep oak seedlings in dappled shade for a better growth form and keep the volunteer seedlings in the sun for a healthier growth form.
A project of 100 acorns can multiply to 375 trees if taken care of and separated properly. Now this may sounds like a weedy problem, but raising trees in a great experiment. If your project was to create wildlife habitat, would you really only want 3-4 types of trees? No, the more, the better! Species diversity is key! Great wildlife habitat composed of many species will provide more resources of shelter and food to the creatures who will call it home.
Our Arbor Day Project trees are meant for public spaces. We plant them in parks, school grounds, and are exploring planting them in cemeteries, churches, or anywhere else they may be enjoyed by the public, free-of-charge. Just remember, before planting projects such as these, make sure you have landowner permission, and you have a plan to protect them from mowers, wildlife, vehicles, and kids. A barrier must be put around them for protection. Trees only 1 year old at planting need about 3 years, at least, before they are strong enough and tall enough to be seen and not injured. Trees should be planted 20 feet apart with considerations of powerlines and buildings above ground, traffic ordinances, and right-of-ways and pipes below ground. Once a plan is drawn out and placement of trees is decided, bring in the volunteers! One year after planting, return to the site in winter, and prune the trees to improve growth form.
Arbor Day projects are great for partnering with student volunteers and other adult civic groups. Building habitat takes time. Plan your project today!
For information about creating and protecting wildlife habitat contact Laurie Lomas Gonzales from the Lower Trinity Basin Chapter.