Planting trees yields dozens of lessons
In the fall of 2014, Mary Alice Rickert, a third grade teacher at Templeton Elementary, replied yes when asked by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources if she would like trees for her classroom. But when 80 bare root black oak saplings arrived in late April 2015, she wasn’t sure what to do. She did not remember ordering the trees. The oaks were in jeopardy of going to waste as her class was in the middle of standardized testing and the other demands for a teacher’s time made it difficult to plan for this unexpected delivery.
I first heard about Mrs. Rickert’s dilemma from my son’s teacher at Templeton Elementary. I saw a perfect learning opportunity, made arrangements to care for the trees, and Mrs. Rickert and I arranged for her students to plant the black oaks at Sarkes and Mary Tarzian Nature Preserve. Just a couple of blocks from Templeton Elementary, Tarzian Nature Preserve is a privately owned property protected by Sycamore Land Trust through a conservation easement. The Tarzian family told me a week before that Sarkes and Mary wanted to protect this property in the heart of Bloomington for the plants and animals to have a safe place. They also wanted the property to be used for education.
How to Plant a Bare Root Tree
With Tarzian Nature Preserve as our classroom, the students made a list of why it is good to plant trees. We also diagramed parts of a tree with the goal of identifying the root flare so we could plant them properly. Urban Forestry Specialist with Purdue University Extension writes, “If your objective in tree planting is to grow healthy, long-lived trees, then keeping the bark above ground is vital. A key step for proper tree planting is locating the root flare which is the point where the trunk begins to spread out as it meets the roots growing underground. The presence of a root flare is noticeable on trees that have been planted by nature. Proper planting should mimic nature by keeping the trunk above ground and the anchor roots just below the surface.” (PDF from Purdue University Extension)
Once the students knew about the root flare, they were ready to learn about other planting requirements. I demonstrated how to use your weight to sink the shovel into the ground (similar to getting on a pogo stick in gym class), create a ring around your planting area, and use your shovel as a simple lever to pop up the soil. Other key points to bare root planting:
- Do not let the roots dry out prior to planting day
- Dig the hole wider than seems necessary
- Don’t dig too deep! Keep root flare above ground
- Trim long tap root if needed
- Fill soil into hole and pack firm
- Mulch and water if available (be sure mulch is not on the root flare and bark!)
- Use fencing to prevent nibbling by rabbits and deer
Benefits of Black Oaks
Then we took the tree anatomy and planting lesson a step further. Did you know there are butterflies that rely on the black oak as a host? There has been a lot of publicity about the importance of planting milkweed to host monarch butterflies, but you may not have realized trees serve as hosts too. Another butterfly that relies on a specific plant as a host is the spicebush swallowtail, which needs spicebush and sassafras as a larval host. And the viceroy butterfly, a mimic of the monarch, relies on willows and poplars. To teach the students which butterfly species will benefit from the black oaks they just planted, I consulted Jeffrey E. Belth’s excellent Butterflies of Indiana book. Edward’s hairstreak (juvenal), Horace’s duskywing, and sleepy duskywing butterflies rely on the black oak for survival.
Other animals will rely on the black oak, too. The acorns and buds are eaten by deer, mice, fox, turkeys, and more. Black oaks provide shelter for woodpeckers, chickadees, bluebirds, oak apple gall wasp, katydids to name a few. Humans rely on the black oak for wood products such as furniture, fence posts, and firewood. Humans also have an interest in the wildlife supported by the black oak. And a black oak would make a fine back rest while writing in your nature journal or just resting.
Planting the Seeds of Conservation
Whether our black oaks survive the nibbling of deer or the not-so-perfect planting by 22 third graders is not the most important outcome. What is important is they know how to plant a tree, know they can do it independently, and know that trees are essential for many reasons. What is important is they learned to identify poison ivy, they worked together as a team, they breathed the fresh air, and they were physically active. Just as the Tarzian family wished. The students learned. The students contributed to the preserve. All because Mrs. Rickert ordered some trees.
By Shane Gibson, Environmental Education Director
P.S. Enjoy some very endearing thank you notes from the students!