“Out of Season” Birthday Trees Can Save the World

Someone asked me today about how to plant a special tree in their Seattle neighborhood to honor an important family birthday coming up next week. Since the Plant-For-The-Planet Ambassadors inspire people to plant trees to save the world, my immediate thought was, Great Idea! We can plant Birthday Trees all year long! In Western Washington, dropping a few seeds into the ground should be sufficient since the whole place sprouts trees wherever you look. And that’s half right.

As the largest wildfire ever recorded in Washington history still burns half-contained today in spite of a much-needed rainstorm, we should pause to reflect on tree-planting as a seasonal endeavor that needs care all year long. The beginning of forest fire season arrives. 400 square miles of smoldering blackened forest lands testify to the power of climate in our lives. If we can’t stabilize our climate without reforesting at least 1,000 billion trees, and our forests are twice as likely to suffer large burns in warmer years, then it stands to reason that how we plant trees matters, not too close to houses, not too close together (like matchsticks on timber farms), with varied native plants sharing the soil’s nutrients, and timing is everything if they are to survive our summers.

I love the idea to celebrate and commemorate a big event with a tree. Planting a tree in Seattle before November is going to be tough though, and the tree is going to need special care to get through the dry weather. While sneaking into the neighborhood park by night for ninja tree-planting sounds fun, most of the stories I’ve heard take place soon after Christmas. During this dry time of year your little tree’s chances of surviving until Christmas are really rotten. Turns out Seattle has a master plan for restoring the canopy to 30% using a careful, sustainable approach that plants the whole forest, not just trees. More on that in a second.

Planting a special tree for a landmark occasion evokes deep feelings of belonging to a place and making a difference, of passing on life one generation to the next, but only as long as it’s doing well. A browned sapling cooked to a crisp in the summer sun brings up a whole other set of feelings, none too heartwarming.

Believe it or not, our mild winters, are the only time when it’s really good to plant a tree here in Seattle, November – February mostly. The roots get well-established in the soft cool soil long before the beginning of our summer drought drains away moisture from the ground. Planting in the winter rainy season gives the tree the very best chance of staying healthy. Soon the sap begins to flow and new growth helps the tree prepare for parched heat.
So if you plant a tree in July, think creatively about where and how to care for it. To give joy that lasts a lifetime,  go with a potted tree, on a balcony, entryway, or rooftop, a tree in a newly-landscaped space with permission and maintenance from a landowner with a watering schedule, or a gift tree donated and planted overseas in the tropics where the world’s remaining rainforests are destroyed at the rate of 50 soccer fields per minute.
Look around your neighborhood and notice the spaces that mean something to you, where a big, beautiful tree would be welcome and contribute somehow to the setting. Find out who the landowner is (Parks, SDOT, Public Schools, City Light, neighbors) and how to make it happen when tree-planting season arrives (usually the first Saturday in November, a big planting party in the Seattle Parks). Maybe you can start a tree now at home and plant it when the time is right.
Right now in July and August is a great time to volunteer in the Parks and pull out invasive vines with a neighborhood restoration work party. Our aging urban forests are being overrun by non-native ivy and berry vines, choked out by faster growing species that arrived with the first wave of deforestation and urban growth 100 years ago. Now the old trees planted back then are gradually dying off. The weeds and vines immediately take over. For every hour we need to spend planting trees, it’ll take 5 or 10 hours of volunteer labor to prepare the ground for planting. Volunteer now so we can plant more trees this winter. It’s good work for summertime. Work parties provide the tools and gloves, you get a free workout with great neighbors. Work parties run all the time and volunteers sign up online for the party nearest you.
Meanwhile a tree-planting donation through groups like Plant-For-The-Planet can start a whole forest in poor places that desperately need our care on a massive scale. Why not do both, plant and donate? One Euro per tree translates to planting 100 trees for about 130 dollars. Not a bad price to save the planet. Donate trees the same way we put candles on a cake, a tree for every year.
Another way you can make a huge difference here in Seattle is by voting for the Parks Proposition 1. Ballots are in your mailbox now. Vote and return your ballot with YES for Parks to establish a secure, separate funding plan for our parks to take care of the massive backlog of projects and provide the very best programming for years to come. The plan will cost the average homeowner only a few dollars a month to guarantee much-needed stability for parks funding. Send in your ballot today.
Our youngest Ambassadors for Climate Justice teach us we need to plant 1,000 Billion Trees by 2020 to protect their generation. That comes out to 150 trees per person on earth. If you’ve got the means to plant more you can plant for your own family and for others. Why not start planting your fair share of trees each month? Find a tree-planting campaign you like and set up a donation plan. Without hesitation, trees stand tall as “the gift that keeps on giving” throughout the 21st century. If we humans are to stabilize climate, returning CO2 levels to below 350ppm, it will only be through the ceaseless energy and health of our tree friends who need us to get our hands dirty and reforest the planet.


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