Friday, April 25, 2014

Arbor Day Originated with Northern New Yorker

Tree IllustrationToday is Arbor Day, a 140-year-old tradition wherein Americans plant trees to improve home and country, and it has local roots, so to speak. Begun in 1872 by Adams, NY (Jefferson County) native J. Sterling Morton, Arbor Day was intended to conserve topsoil and increase timber availability in his adopted state of Nebraska. It has since become a worldwide observance.

Morton believed planting trees went beyond improving our nation. He said “The cultivation of trees is the cultivation of the good, the beautiful and the ennobling in mankind.” Rather lofty words, but I agree with him. To invest in trees is to invest in the future; it’s an act of generosity and responsibility. When we plant a tree in our community, it’s possible—depending on the species and the site—that our great-grandchildren and beyond could one day enjoy it.  

Trees reduce energy requirements for both heating and cooling. They filter pollutants from the air and improve property values. Studies even show that the mere presence of trees in one’s life expedites healing and lowers blood pressure. Trees can be planted at other times, but they do best when they’re transplanted before the buds open. So long as the ground has thawed, you don’t have to wait for Arbor Day, which is the last Friday in April, to start planting trees and accruing these benefits.

A $50 hole for a $5 Tree

A good planting hole is essential to the well-being of the tree. The old adage “dig a fifty-dollar hole for a five-dollar tree” needs to be adjusted for inflation but the idea still has currency, you might say. The planting hole should be two to three times the width of the root ball, but no deeper. It’s imperative that the trunk flare be right at ground level, because deep planting leads to serious long-term health problems. For the tree, primarily.

If the soil is very sandy, moderate amounts of peat moss, compost or other amendments can be used in the backfill. In clay soils, though, adding organic matter can cause a “teacup effect,” and roots can suffocate. Fertilizer is stressful on new transplants, so hold off a year or two on that. In productive native soils, trees often don’t need fertilizer.

Water-in as you backfill, but don’t stomp or compact the soil, which stresses the roots. Two to four inches of mulch over the root area (not touching the trunk) will conserve moisture, suppress weeds and improve soils. Staking is discouraged, although on a very windy site you may have to stake a tree with a large crown. Just remember to remove all wires and stakes within one year.

There’s a saying that it’s impossible to water a new transplant too much. This is mostly true, but if the soil is clay, compacted or otherwise poorly drained, the roots can actually drown. New trees may need watering several times a week, but as soils vary in moisture holding capacity, check soil moisture a few inches below the surface. Large transplants need watering beyond the first year; the rule is one year per inch trunk diameter.

Trees are like kids—they look cute when they come home from the nursery, and they grow faster and need more space than you expected. Unlike kids, who rarely come with instruction books, a tree manual will tell you how tall a given tree will get and how far its limbs will reach. Different species and cultivars mature at various heights, and there’s sure to be one suitable for your location.

Happy Arbor Day! Have fun planting!

Illustration by Shirley Peron, courtesy of Seaway Trail Wildguide

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

One Response

  1. Rich Ross says:

    I’m hearing disputes io who was the true originator of Arbor Day. Reference is made by a little known fact on the following website.

    A little known fact about the town of Sodus (NY) is that it is the birthplace of Arbor Day. In the year 1881, Edward C. Delano of Sodus Center wrote an article that was published in the Wayne County Alliance titled “Shade Trees”. Mr. Delano urged that shade trees be planted in all the town’s schoolyards. In that year he was elected Wayne County School Commissioner and worked tirelessly for this cause. It was, however, 1888 before the New York State Legislature proclaimed, officially, Arbor Day. The first Arbor Day circulars were sent out from Albany in the spring of 1889. Some of the trees planted in Sodus on that first Arbor Day still stand.

    Looking further on the NET Mr. Morgan was in Nebraska at the cited time.

    It appears we have some historian controversy.

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