Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mission Accomplished, Prairie Now a Savannah

Well I've done my part!  The very cool Mast Tree Network has challenged us sign a pledge promising to plant an oak tree yet this year.  They have asked for 20 pledgers.  We're up to 5 and gaining momentum.

I just got back from planting 3 bur oak seedlings in a natural area owned by my kids' elementary school and managed by an amazingly dedicated group of volunteers.  Part of the natural area is a gorgeous tallgrass prairie:

Somewhere amidst that sea of grass there are now three tiny bur oaks, which Aldo Leopold called the stormtroopers of the prairie:
OK, that probably doesn't look like a stormtrooper to you, but I'm telling you this little dude is fierce.  Here's the back story on these three trees.  I gathered the acorns last fall from beneath three massive bur oaks on the gorgeous campus of Carleton College (yes, there is terrific fishing in those ponds, but please don't tell anyone).  Many of those acorns were eaten last winter (which explains the clarity of my thinking during that time frame and the quantum steps I made in my career!), most were planted this past spring, and some languished in the fridge well into the summer.  They didn't stay in the fridge for the sole purpose of annoying my wife, Alice, but that was the practical effect.  It's just: how can you throw acorns away?

Then to prove to a friend in the nursery business that I could plant acorns in pots ridiculously late and still grow bigger trees than he had starting from acorns early in the spring, I planted them on July 16.  I have shown you what the English oaks that I also planted on that date did; one of them, in a prototype tree tube, reached 15" after only emerging from the soil on August 1.  The bur oaks were slower to germinate, and didn't grow as much - in part because the acorns weren't the size of golf balls like the English oaks giving them a supercharged dose of early carbs, and in part because they were in a shadier spot than the English oaks.  Still, they did very well; the one in the prototype grow tube reached nearly 10 inches.

Most importantly, at least to me, is that my oaks planted late in the season ended up as big as my nursery manager friend's spring planted oaks.  Braggin' rights!  I was even more impressed with how much root development happened in the short period of time since July 16.

And no, I did not leave those little stormtroopers out there naked and along to fight their way through the prairie grass and the deer, who bed down just feet away from where I planted and who are now regular visitors on our old residential street several blocks away.  They are safe inside plastic tree tubes.  We watched Apollo 13 last weekend, and as I lowered the tree tube over the seedling I couldn't help thinking of it as an oak launcher.  I'm already counting down until spring when I can say:  Houston, we have lift off.

Choice acorns, hand selected from amazing parent trees, and planted within 2 miles of their source as part of a savannah restoration.  That's a rewarding afternoon's work.  Thank you Mast Tree Network for being my impetus!


  1. How exciting to have a prairie (now savanna) restoration at an elementary school! One of my nieces has a few sad switchgrass set out in front of hers and every time I see it, I just itch to get out there and fill in the whole area. What a learning opportunity it must be for the children to have a real native prairie (however small) to explore.

    Tomorrow I'm off to the Loess Hills for some acorn and hickory hunting. Wish me luck! :)