A modern day Lorax or two

On July 28, 2019, a tornado barreled through Scandia, Minnesota, damaging homes and toppling trees in its path. “I began wondering how those trees might be replaced,” said Tom Furey, a volunteer Water Steward who owns property on Bone Lake. “Losing trees doesn’t just affect the appearance of our community. Many of these trees were growing near the lake and need to be replaced with healthy, deep-rooted trees and shrubs to stabilize the shoreline.”

Down the road in Marine on St. Croix, fellow Water Steward John Goodfellow had just helped to create an urban forestry plan for his community and was also thinking about the future of the trees. “The Marine urban forest is comprised of nearly 1,000 trees,” Goodfellow says, “but many large specimen trees are approaching the end of their lives. In addition, 10% of Marine’s urban forest are ash trees, which are vulnerable to the emerald ash borer beetle.”

Volunteers in Marine added a second gravel bed cell to their tree nursery this spring.

Taking a cue from the Lorax, that mythical Dr. Seuss character who speaks for the trees, Goodfellow organized volunteers to build a gravel bed tree nursery in 2020 at the Marine Village School, which is now used to grow trees for community reforestation efforts. Gravel bed nurseries are a simple technology from the University of Minnesota that can be used to help small trees planted in the spring grow larger root systems over the summer. This increases their survival rate when planted in the fall. In April 2023, Marine volunteers built a second gravel bed on site and planted the two cells with 16 young trees.

Volunteers in Marine after transplanting trees from the gravel bed in the fall.

“Transplanting is a stressful time for any plant because a lot of its root system is lost when it’s removed from the ground,” Goodfellow explains. “Trees grown in a gravel bed are easier to harvest. There is no digging required. The trees are gently pulled, and the loose gravel simply falls away from the fine fibrous roots.” Another advantage to using gravel bed nurseries is that bare root trees are significantly cheaper than container-grown or balled-and-burlap trees.

After seeing the success of Marine’s gravel bed project, Furey began organizing project partners to build a gravel bed nursery in Scandia as well. He lined up a stewardship grant from North Woods and Waters of the St. Croix Heritage Area, via a Grinnell College Wall Award, and purchased lumber, gravel and materials in the fall. On April 21, 2023, volunteers braved the snow to build the gravel bed and plant it with 50 little trees. Tim Foss, an Ampact Community Forestry member at Washington Conservation District helped to guide the project to completion. Says Furey, “It was an amazing group.”

The tale of the modern day Lorax doesn’t stop there, however.

Anna Barker, a Water Steward and Washington County Master Gardener, was also inspired to speak for the trees. Like Furey, she secured a stewardship grant from North Woods and Waters and used it to help Master Gardeners build a demonstration gravel bed nursery at the Washington County Fairground in Lake Elmo. Master Gardeners Jeff Murray, Ed Myatt, Blair Johnson, Christopher Johnson, and Christi Schmidt lent a helping hand to coordinate logistics with the Fair Board and install an irrigation upgrade to bring water to the trees. Foss helped volunteers to construct the gravel bed last week and 25 baby bur oaks were planted over the weekend. They will be transplanted to Sunfish Lake Park in Lake Elmo this fall as part of a larger reforestation effort.

During that same weekend, volunteers at Sunfish Lake Park planted 160 bur oak seedlings as part of an Earth Day – Arbor Day event. Volunteers also “adopted” their trees to help monitor and care for them as they grow. According to Tony Manzara, Board President of Friends of Sunfish Lake Park, “Many of the adopters were very young children who will grow up with their trees. This was a very popular event for families to introduce kids to the idea of environmental stewardship.”

Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.

The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss

To learn more about gravel beds and how they help to improve community tree planting projects, visit: trees.umn.edu/outreach/gravel-beds.

To adopt a tree at Sunfish Lake Park, go to sminc-lake-elmo.org/adopt-a-tree/.