Both the Forest and the Trees

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. ~ Greek Proverb

Trees wait for pick-up during the WCD annual tree sale.

Washington Conservation District (WCD) first began its tree program 35 years ago in 1978. One can imagine farmers and homeowners across the county tucking spindly, bare-root seedlings into the soil and wondering when, and if, the trees would grow large enough to shade the ground and block the wind. It was an awful lot of work to do for trees that would take years to grow.Over the years, trees purchased through the Conservation District tree sale have been used to create field windbreaks, stabilize ravines, shade homes and provide habitat for birds and wildlife. Tens of thousands of trees have been sold each year. Due to a change in regulations, however, the WCD will no longer be able to purchase and resell bundles of saplings from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources tree nurseries and so this April’s sale will be its last.

To truly appreciate the degree to which the WCD tree sale has shaped the landscape of Washington County, consider that this spring alone, the WCD sold 23,000 trees to local residents for conservation projects and habitat plantings. This includes 3500 white pine, the Minnesota state tree which once blanketed the northern half of the state until it was logged almost to extirpation, more than 1000 white oaks, towering sentinels of the prairie savanna that support more over 500 species of larval insects for birds to eat, 1200 sugar and red maples, which provide dappled shade for woodland wildflowers and sturdy limbs for backyard swings, and more than 6000 shrubs – highbush cranberry, choke cherry, redosier dogwood and others that provide food and habitat for wildlife.

This spring, as landowners across the county prepare to plant trees acquired through the WCD tree sale, community Arbor Day events, and local nurseries, a few simple steps will help to give these newly planted trees long life. The first step is to dig holes that are deep enough for the trees’ roots to spread out. A hole should be twice as wide as the roots and slightly deeper so that the taproot hangs straight down without curving. The soil should be firmly packed in around the roots so that there are no air pockets.

The second step is to add mulch, two to four inches deep, around the base of newly planted trees to help the soil retain moisture and prevent grass and weeds from competing with the trees for nutrients (this mulch should not touch the base of the tree). Mulch volcanoes are a common but misguided practice that often kills trees within a few years. Where the mulch touches the tree bark, moisture can cause cracks in the bark, which serve as entry points for fungus and insects. Excessive mulch can also keep oxygen from reaching the roots of the tree or lead the roots to eventually rot from excess moisture.

A final step to protect new trees as they grow is to add cages or netting to ward off hungry deer and rabbits. New seedlings should be watered well after planting and then soaked once a week with about five gallons of water for the first three growing seasons. After that, established trees should only need supplemental watering during drought times.

As the Conservation District completes its final tree sale, the board and staff are grateful to the citizens of Washington County, without whom no trees would be planted and no conservation projects built. This year 23,000 scraggly seedlings will put down roots. Thirty-five years from now, these trees will blanket the hills and hollows of our county, a gift to future generations.