Training the next generation to be “Keepers of the Trees”

The sun shines on a May morning and 23 tiny children gather round, faces up-turned, smiling and eager to begin the day. Kim Lawler, a team leader with Tree Trust, and Joan Nichols, a Master Water Steward in-training, stand before the children with a young white oak that the students will soon plant in a grassy lawn behind their school.

Kim Lawler and Joan Nichols prepare a white oak for planting at Middleton Elementary School in Woodbury.

“Who can tell me some things that trees do for us?” asks Lawler, as she cuts the tangled ball of roots, preparing the tree for planting. The first-graders respond eagerly with hands waving in the air.

“They help the air.”

“They make homes for animals like deer, squirrels, and robins.”

“They soak up the water when it rains.”

Lawler nods encouragingly to each new child who answers. “Yes,” she says, “Trees do all these great things and when the rain comes down they help to soak up the water so it doesn’t go into the storm sewer that goes to lakes and rivers you want to swim in.”

Protecting water resources is a big motivation behind the “Campus Greening” underway at Middleton Elementary and Lake Middle Schools in Woodbury. The project, which is a partnership effort of the South Washington Watershed District and South Washington County Schools, will convert 15-acres of non-active use turf to prairie and native plantings, in addition to adding 200 trees and two outdoor classrooms to the school property. The transformed school campus will use less groundwater for irrigation, capture more rainwater on-site, create habitat for birds and pollinators, and provide unique learning opportunities for the students.

SWWD schools
The Campus Greening project at Lake and Middleton Schools will replace 15-acres of unused turf with native plants and 200 trees.

After a short introduction, Mrs. Massucci’s first graders are ready to get their hands dirty. Lawler and Nichols hand out shovels and the kids line up to begin digging a hole. Afterwards, they divide into two teams and race to fill buckets with water and mulch for the tree. When they’re done, Lawler continues the instruction.

“What I’m doing – and most adults don’t know this – is cutting the roots so that they grow down into the ground instead of around in a circle.” She goes on to explain that tree roots will grow in a circle if the tree is grown in a bucket. Before planting, it’s important to cut the cylindrical root ball into a rectangle and trim the bottoms of the roots as well. Otherwise, the roots will continue to wrap around themselves after planting, causing the tree to die in 10-15 years. “People also tend to plant trees too deep,” she continues as she shows the kids how to find the root flare buried under an inch of soil. As they place the tree in the hole and backfill it with fresh dirt, they are careful to ensure that the root flare still peeks out above the ground.

After a short introduction, Mrs. Massucci’s first graders got started digging a hole for their tree.

South Washington’s Campus Greening really highlights the value of collaboration. In addition to providing a landscape design for the project, the watershed district recruited Tree Trust, a local non-profit, to teach the students about trees and coordinate tree-planting with 67 classes. The US Forest Service provided $5000 in additional funding for the effort through its Urban Connections program. Meanwhile, Joan Nichols and fellow steward in-training Susan Goebel will help to design plantings and interpretive signs for the outdoor classrooms as part of their capstone project to become certified as Master Water Stewards this fall. The unique learning experiences and hands-on participation have helped students and teachers at the school to develop a sense of ownership as the project moves forward.

When they are done planting, Lawler gathers the first-graders together one more time to share an important message. “You guys are what I call the keepers of the trees,” she says. “You’ll be here on this campus for another seven years as these trees are growing. It’s your job to teach the younger kids who come to this school why you planted the trees and how to take care of them.” She smiles, and the group gathers round for a photo with their tree. The next generation of tree-keepers is trained and ready to serve.

Meet the next generation of “Keepers of the Trees”.