Thousands of trees planted in Spokane County last year are dead.
The Lands Council rallied hundreds of volunteers a year ago to plant 10,000 ponderosa pine seedlings at a dozen locations for its Reforest Spokane Day. Tom’s of Maine provided a $20,000 grant to fund the event.
While organizers say the tree-planting was a big success in terms of volunteer turnout, as volunteers and organizers revisited the planting sites it became clear something had gone wrong: Most of the seedlings didn’t survive.
Organizers aren’t giving up. They’re trying again this year, but with several changes they hope will give the seedlings a better start.
“Obviously, the results were not ideal,” said Amanda Swan, development and communications director at the Lands Council. “However, I think it presented an opportunity for us to really put our heads together and tap into some of our partnerships that we have and really make this tree planting even more successful.”
With any mass planting a 50 percent mortality rate can be expected, said Kat Hall, conservation programs director, but last year’s planting saw a much higher rate than that. So Hall started talking with forestry colleagues to pin down what likely went wrong and what they can do this year to increase the seedlings’ odds of survival.
One of the reasons the sites were selected was also a big contributor to the mortality rate, Hall said.
“We do our reforestation on some of the worst, most degraded sites,” she said. “Typically, the sites that are in need of trees have really rocky soils and they have very poor soil fertility. The hope is when you restore it, gradually it will help to improve the soil structure and it’ll help with soil fertility. But that kind of stuff just doesn’t happen overnight.”
This year, the Lands Council is partnering with Sunshine Disposal & Recycling, which is providing organic compost to surround the trees with nutrient-dense mulch that will help them thrive and protect them from weeds that threaten to crowd them out. The mulch will insulate the roots from freezes, and volunteers will plant larger, hardier seedlings.
The most obvious problem contributing to the seedlings’ struggle was the dry spell that followed the planting.
“We didn’t get as much rain as we usually get,” Hall said. “In the two to three weeks after the planting, we didn’t get any rain, and then the ground froze. The trees became stressed.”
This fall has seen record-low rain, too, but Hall said volunteers will give the trees a good watering as soon as they go into the ground, and they’ll be watered several more times into next summer.
“There’s not a lot we can do about nature,” Hall said. “We’ve had an incredibly dry fall. We’re hoping that even if we do have a very, very uncharacteristically dry rest of the fall, the trees will be OK with all of those interventions.”
This year’s sites were selected because they are either close to a water source or accessible to water trucks. Volunteers are also asked to bring a gallon of water if they are able to.
With all the changes, the Lands Council also is reducing the number of trees planted so volunteers can spend more time with each seedling, including watering and adding the mulch. A total of 5,000 trees will be planted – 3,000 from seedlings and 2,000 from a native seed mix. While the Tom’s of Maine grant paid for last year’s trees, this year the planting is supported locally.
“We definitely are hoping to improve the survival rate,” Swan said. “It’s such a positive day. Everybody’s excited to be out there. We just want that excitement and enthusiasm to really carry over throughout the year when people get to go back and visit their trees.”