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Planting trees? Heed this expert (and not so expert) advice

Kelly Smith of Carlton SWCD shows how much a tree planted last year has grown. Contributed Photo1 / 3
Fourth-grade students, in groups of 10, plant trees with the help of Carlton County Soil Water Conservation District staff. Contributed Photo2 / 3
Kelly Smith of Carlton SWCD (left) teaches this group of fourth-grade students how to plant trees. Contributed Photo 3 / 3

'Tis the season (finally!) when many of us turn our thoughts and efforts to digging in the dirt and planting all kinds of plants, bushes and trees. It should be pretty simple, right? You dig a hole in the dirt, plop in a plant, fill in the rest of the hole, and move on to the next one. If you make a mistake, or change your mind, you just replace the plant or dig it up and start over...right?

Well, that lackadaisical "plan" may be all right for plants and bushes, but trees are a bit different. Trees are a lot more expensive to replace and they can get a whole lot bigger to move! When it comes to planting trees, it's better to get some advice and do some planning before you start the planting.

To get you started, here's some expert (and not so expert) advice from the volunteers and kids at this year's Arbor Day tree planting.

This annual May tree planting event brings together experts from several agencies/businesses to teach fourth-grade students from all over Carlton County how to plant trees. This year they cooperatively planted trees on Mission Road just north of Highway 210 in Sawyer. The University of Minnesota Extension Office organized and coordinated the event, the Fond du Lac Reservation supplied the land, the Carlton County Land Department brought the trees and planting bars and bags, and the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and Kettle River Woodland Council donated the cookies and milk and the satellite "biffy." The volunteer "experts" were from these and other groups, and the "not-so-experts" were the 225 fourth-graders from schools in Wrenshall, Barnum, Carlton and Esko.

The longest serving Arbor Day volunteer is Kelly Smith, Carlton SWCD's conservation technician for forestry, who has been a strong supporter of this event for the past 20 years. According to Smith, the land for this year's tree planting used to be a gravel pit that was filled in with excess topsoil from the creation of local roads. The resultant big field is slowly becoming a small forest of trees planted over several years through this Arbor Day tree planting. Last year's planting put in long rows of red pine seedlings, while this year saw about 600 white spruce planted. There will be one more year of planting at this site before another location will be chosen for the children and experts to fill with trees.

Led by Ryan Pennesi from the County Land Department, the students loosened up for their planting experience by learning how trees "reach down to the ground to pull up the water" and then "stretch up to the sky and grow." He also had the kids fly and "swoop" over the tree tops like the eagles.

After their hour-long tree planting lessons, some of the "not so expert" students from Carlton gave their basic advice about tree planting.

Isabelle said you have to loosen the soil before you plant. According to Celia, you need a certain shovel to dig holes, and Stella piped up that it might be hard getting the shovel in deep enough. Christian reminded us to plant the trees root side down, and Caitlin cautioned not to break the roots or the tree won't grow properly. Jack B. noted that you must cover the air holes or the tree will die. You have to put dirt around it. And Madi added that you need to pat the soil to make sure the tree stays in place. Claire reported you can't plant trees too close to each other or when they get bigger, the trees won't grow. And all of the students agreed with John and Chase who said trees are good for the environment and good for giving us oxygen.

In the down time between groups of children, the real "experts" added a little more tree planting advice.

• Planning is just as important as the actual tree planting, according to Ann Rust from the University of Minnesota Extension. Start by "looking up" — don't plant trees underneath power lines or too close to houses and other buildings. Also, keep in mind how far the roots will spread as roots can and will do damage to whatever they come in contact with.

• Do not plant too close to underground services or in the road right of ways, said Mike Rust, a four-year volunteer.

• Plant native trees. For instance, blue spruce aren't native to Minnesota, explained Barbara Isaacson, Master Gardener intern. They like the dryer climate and lighter soils of Colorado and other western states, and many blue spruce planted in Minnesota die out in 15-20 years from rust disease.

• Plant trees far enough apart to let the air flow through, suggested Terrence Darwin, a local landowner and first-year volunteer. In our wetter climate, this might help explain why many of his blue spruce trees are healthy over 20 years after planting. In addition to, plant whenever you can.

• Ask yourself, why and where are you planting? That will help you figure out what kind of trees to plant, explained Corey Verdegan, a first-year volunteer from Sappi. If you are planting in a forest, you should keep in mind there is more competition and shade for young trees. On the other hand, planting an old field where there will be less competition with other trees might be a good place to plant spruce and pine, which are slower growing, as long as you do some annual maintenance to control the aspen regeneration that grows faster and will compete with what you planted.

• Learn as much as you can about tree planting, such as where to plant and about the (different) species and the kinds of soils where they grow best, added Eric Schram, a first-year volunteer from Sappi.

• Think about plant diversity. "If you plant the same trees as your neighbors and a bug or disease comes through, they are all gone," said Rachel Olesiak from the Cloquet Forestry Center.

• Match the tree type to the site's soil, shade and browse conditions. Trees naturally grow close together in a forest and said that it is all right to plant trees closer together. "The closeness will shade out the grasses," said Kelly Smith, from the Carlton SWCD, "and as the trees mature, you can manage your forest and thin the trees out. By planting about 600 trees per acre, you will probably end up with about 90 trees per acre via thinning and losses to deer browse." He said a good time to plant trees is when they are dormant and when there is a lot of moisture in the soil.

• Planting trees is not just as easy as digging a hole, according to Becky Haass. "You need to prep, then plant, and then care for the trees after planting," she said.

• Take care of the trees after they are planted to make sure they get enough water and nutrients, said Diane Lindstrom, a Woodland Council advisor who has volunteered for about 15 years.

• Trees need enough water for the first one to two years, said Chris Maitland, a Sappi employee who has volunteered for about nine years. "If there is not enough rain, you should water your newly-planted trees once a week or so."

• Take care for your trees after planting by controlling competition from grasses and other plants, protecting them from deer, and making sure the trees get enough light, said Smith. "It often takes several years of care before your tree can be left alone," he said.

• Keep kids involved in tree planting projects to inspire these kids who will hopefully be the next generation of conservation leaders, said Pennesi. A little management, along with a little bit of science, together with a lot of fun, will make tree planting a good experience for everyone.