Before planting trees, research site and soil conditions

Before planting trees, research site and soil conditions

In the SWCD world, we can tell spring is on the way with one very telling sign: Across the state, districts have begun filling their newsletters, social-media posts, and both email and snail-mail updates with information about our annual spring tree sales.

Our friends from Fairfield and Franklin SWCDs both recently used the confluence of tree sale and stream issues as articles in their newsletters, and I wanted to share some of their tips here, as well as remind our readers about why we need you to be planting trees locally.

Tree establishment relies as much on “location, location, location” as any real-estate pitch. The proximity of your trees to water will be one of the biggest determinations of what can go there. Our dogwoods, redbuds and red oaks will be more likely to thrive on moist but well-drained soils, as will the spruce and fir.

Sugar maples will need a combination of richer soil and even moisture to thrive. One of the best ways to determine what will do well on your site is to see what occurs there naturally and continue to add to that combination of species. Researching your site and soil conditions needs to be the first step in a tree-planting venture to avoid disappointment later.

The species you choose might be wildly different, depending on the features of your property and even your reasons for planting. I’d like to stress — again — the importance of having buffers along any streams or waterways on the property. Stream-side buffers are a critical tool to stave off continuing erosion.

Trees and shrubs are one of the best ways to try to stabilize stream banks, so planting trees in riparian corridors is a wise investment. However, it’s not just trees that will work for stabilizing: Depending on how much space you can set aside, a combination of trees, shrubs and long-rooted grasses can be used to create a good buffer. A buffer 50-120 feet wide is where you will see long-term benefits to reduce bank cutting and improve water quality.

One easy way to incorporate shrubs in your riparian buffer is to use livestakes. We aren’t selling the stakes or shrub seedlings that are really appropriate to create your own (except for the pollinator pack — red osier dogwood is a good candidate to make livestakes after the plant has matured). These are branches cut from healthy shrub species like button bush, willows and silky dogwood while they are dormant. The angled cut end is inserted about a foot deep into the middle to upper bank of a creek, and as the weather warms, the cut branch will send down roots, much like rooting tomato or succulent seedlings.

You may notice that in an effort to not repeat some of the mistakes of the past, we are trying to encourage as many native species as we can — we don’t want another autumn olive or multi-flora rose situation on our hands.

If you are hunting for unique, beautiful specimens to add to your landscape, remember many hybrids and certain cultivars from nurseries will not provide the same quality of food to birds, pollinators and other wildlife species and can indeed cause future problems on the landscape by outcompeting native plants. Wherever you purchase your plants, try to remember the closest you can get to the native varieties, the better.

Planting these native plants within your riparian corridors is even more of a win, as it provides food, shelter and access to fresh running water for birds, mammals and insects and filters sediment and nutrients, protecting aquatic wildlife. Even the leaves that keep the water shaded and cool are then part of the food chain when they fall into the stream and create delicate layers where macroinvertebrates and salamanders nest.

Tree planting makes so much sense for conservation that it’s one of the few things districts across the nation, both urban and rural, have in common and have made it a priority since the early days of our agencies. In the west conservation plantings are used to create windbreaks to slow eolian erosion (the loss of soil by wind). Hunters and wildlife enthusiasts frequently come to tree sales for an opportunity to enhance wildlife browse and cover for habitat improvement on their property, and many thousands of our seedlings have gone home with children after Arbor Day celebrations.

With the prices kept low due to the small size of our seedlings and quantity discounts, SWCD tree sales are a way to inexpensively kickstart the reforestation of an area after logging, create windscreens or just experiment with adding a few specimen trees for your own special interests. Whatever your motivations, planting a tree today will be providing for our future tomorrow.

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