Small Trees Make Big Canopies

Extension Master Gardener Intern Project Launches!

By Pam Quanrud, Extension Master Gardener Intern

First Free Tree Giveaway, Earth Day 2020.
Photo © 2020 Pam Quanrud

As they say, when life gives you lemons . . . you can end up with a lot of trees ready to give away but no place to hand them out!

Undeterred by public events canceled due to COVID-19, Extension Master Gardener Intern Alicia Martin and I figured out a way to launch our “Small Trees Make Big Canopies” Free Tree project from our front stoops on Earth Day 2020.

Our Free Tree project stems from concerns that our region’s tree canopy is shrinking fast as our largest trees fall victim to age, redevelopment, poor pruning practices around power lines, prolonged periods of drought, and record-high flash rainfalls. Many people seek to replant, but the instinct to plant a larger tree can lead to disappointing results, since larger nursery trees need extensive root trimming to be portable enough to sell, and their new owners often fail to give them enough water in their first year to survive.

Smaller trees, ones whose root balls are no bigger than a one- to five-gallon pot, are easier to plant, easier to maintain while they stabilize in their new homes, and, since they do not suffer from the shock of root pruning, they can thrive and grow faster, easily compensating for their small initial size within a few years. We fill a niche in the system, below the highly successful free tree program run by Arlington County in partnership with Eco Action Arlington.

Quercus Alba acorn and leaves in October.
Photo © 2015 Elaine L. Mills

But back to our little trees. As we attended our Extension Master Gardener training classes in Fairlington last fall, Alicia and I began to collect small native trees from our yards and those of our friends and neighbors, potting and storing almost 150 saplings in our yards by the end of November. In addition to volunteer saplings, we also collected and stratified acorns in large containers of soil over the winter, protecting them from foraging animals with screens weighed down by bricks.

As we coaxed along our small wards, we learned a few painful, but valuable, lessons.

First, always identify the trees before they lose their leaves in the fall. I was paralyzed in ignorance, and even Alicia’s dendrology training was sorely challenged when we faced a hundred leafless twigs in pots in early March.

Luckily, by April most of the twigs were identified, but the oaks held out until May before they revealed their parentage. Having identified the trees, Alicia put together information cards for each (in English and Spanish) that cover optimal tree siting and planting, tree care, growth pattern, and expected size when fully mature. All the information cards are on the MGNV website under the Small Trees Make Big Canopies program tab, as well as links to the more detailed EMG Tried and True information sheets for each tree.

Soon after the tree identification debacle, Mother Nature taught us a second valuable lesson. We had potted up dozens of small oak trees only to find that animals had chopped into our crop like it was a salad bar. Imagine our disappointment at seeing our little trees, felled at their bases, after some animal had feasted on tender acorns. We now have the trees in deep “pens” covered with large screens to keep the critters out. It takes a lot longer for the tree to consume that acorn then you may think. We expect to have to “pen” our oaks through most of the summer. Oh well . . .

Oak “Pens”   Photo © 2020 Eric Wenberg

Our final challenge was finding a way to give away our saplings after COVID-19 forced the cancelation of our two scheduled events – the Arlington Home and Garden Show and Glencarlyn Family Fun Day. We decided to set up shop on our driveways, put out our “Free Trees” banner and information display, and advertise on Nextdoor, launching our first give away on Earth Day 2020.

The response has been really gratifying. In less than a month, we have given away almost 70 free trees, one (properly socially distant) family at a time. My postman even took a sugar maple home to plant. I will well remember the look on the face of a 7 year old as she picked out, named, and then proudly carried her redbud home.

Willow Oak in its new home!
Photo © 2020 Pam Quanrud

We track our “Class of 2020” trees by email or text, reminding the new parents to water frequently (especially during dry spells), avoid volcano mulching and fertilizing, and encouraging them to be in touch if something goes wrong with their sapling.

We hope to host a few Free Tree giveaways in the fall, if public gatherings begin again. We also have a Tree Request Form posted on our MGNV webpage, so anyone can sign up for a tree anytime.

Have a sapling you don’t want in your yard that you don’t want to throw in the compost bin? Let us know! Our I Have Saplings!  form on our MGNV webpage will be live soon. Just fill out the form and Alicia or I will be in touch about collecting your volunteers.   

We are also happy to take your old used pots. As you may imagine, we run through a lot of  half-gallon t0 5-gallon containers and can always use more.   

We are so grateful to our intern mentors, Becky Halbe and Kirsten Conrad, for their support and guidance these past six months, without whom we would still be sitting around with a bunch of twigs in pots in our yards.

Our thanks to Tyler Ormsby for all his work to put together our beautiful webpage with its information sheets and sign up forms. Our thanks as well to those Master Gardeners who helped us avoid giving away non-native trees (Japanese Elm, anyone?)

And thanks to everyone who answered our call this spring to let us come harvest saplings in their yards.  We will be back in the fall.

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