Although the first day of spring will not be here until March 20, it’s not too early to begin planning for Arbor Day! Arbor Day has its origins in Nebraska. Newspaper editor J. Sterling Morton was an enthusiastic supporter of planting trees. He advocated for individuals and civic groups to plant them. Once he became secretary of the Nebraska Territory, his expanded platform provided him the opportunity to further spread his message of the value of trees.
On Jan. 4, 1872, Morton first proposed a tree planting holiday to be called “Arbor Day” at a meeting of the Kansas Board of Agriculture. The celebration was set for April 10, 1872. Prizes were offered to counties and individuals that planted the highest number of properly planted trees on that day. It has been estimated that more than 1 million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day.
In 1885, Arbor Day was named a legal state holiday in Nebraska, and April 22 was selected as the date for its permanent annual observance. Many other states also passed legislation to observe Arbor Day each year.
By 1920, more than 45 states and territories were celebrating Arbor Day. Planting trees on Arbor Day became a prominent tradition in schools across the nation in 1882, with schoolchildren learning about the importance of trees and receiving a tree to plant in their own yard.
Today Arbor Day is celebrated in all 50 states. The most common date for the state observance is the last Friday in April — National Arbor Day — and that’s when Sidney has traditionally celebrated the day.
In fact, a tree has been planted by the city of Sidney’s Tree Board at a school building in Sidney each year on a rotating basis. Since I’ve been mayor, trees have been planted at Longfellow (1999), Central (1999), Emerson (2222), Central (2222), Lehman Catholic (2222), Holy Angels (2222), Northwood (2222), and Christian Academy (2222).
As part of Sidney’s Bicentennial Celebration last year, a red oak tree (Sidney’s Official Bicentennial Tree) was planted at each school building in Sidney. Although there were no ceremonies on Arbor Day because of the pandemic, the trees were planted nonetheless, and marked with signage that will allow future generations of students know that the tree under which they seek refuge from the sun was planted during the celebration of Sidney’s 200th birthday.
I had hoped to plant a red oak tree in my yard last year to mark Sidney’s Bicentennial, replacing the Colorado Blue Spruce that before being planted in the yard years ago, had served as our family Christmas tree. That tree unfortunately succumbed to needle drop and had to be removed. Hopefully we’ll plant the tree this spring.
Even though Arbor Day is a couple of months away, I suggest starting early so that you will be able to visit nurseries and select the best stock available. Additionally, most local nurseries have existing clients, it may be difficult to find one that even has time to work with you, especially if you require their services to move and plant the tree(s) you have selected.
Selecting the right tree for the space you have available it one of the most important decisions you can make. Determining whether you want a shade tree, a small flowering tree to brighten up a shady corner, or a tree that will attract wildlife is important, but even more important is determining whether the space you have available is large enough for the species you want to plant.
You can ask your local arborist, university agricultural extension agent, or local nurseryman for tree recommendations. A word of caution: not all landscapers are nurserymen; and, not all nurserymen have formal training. Imagine my surprise, for example, when I was informed a couple of months ago by a nurseryman that there was no such thing as a red oak tree. I made the immediate decision not to purchase any species of tree from that company.
I would also suggest that before determining the tree(s) you want to plant that you consult the varieties suitable for our “Hardiness Zone.” That information is available online at the United States Department of Agriculture’s website. I would encourage you to plant a tree that is native to our region. Trees that naturally grew here are likely to have a better chance of survival.
Once you have determined the variety of tree you want to plant, it is good to dig the hole well in advance. When planted, the tree should be sitting on undisturbed soil. The hole should be at least twice the size of the root ball or container in which the tree is delivered to you, with the sides sloping outward toward the surface.
If you dig the hole now and then fill it in for easier planting later, mix the existing soil with compost at a ratio of one part soil to one part compost. The compost will increase the nutrient content and water retention capacity of the soil in your yard. Once you are ready to plant the tree you have selected, the job is made much easier because you’ve prepared the site in advance.
A word of caution: compost does not include peat moss, potting soil, and other items readily available pre-packaged from the big box stores. Long ago, my grandfather would visit our farm every spring, and take back to his home in Columbus bushel baskets full of manure. His neighbors could never understand how his roses were so much healthier than their own. The moral of this story is that you may well want to make friends with a local farmer!
Finally, if you have a large yard, I would not hesitate to recommend either a white oak (Shelby County’s Bicentennial Tree) or a red oak (Sidney’s Bicentennial Tree). The white oak (Quercus alba) will grow to a mature height of 50 to 80 feet and have a canopy that is 100 feet in diameter. It is certainly not a tree for a small space.
The red oak (Quercus ruba) will grow to a mature height of 60-75 feet and have a canopy diameter that will range from 60-75 feet. Again, it is certainly not a tree for a small space. Both trees are native to Shelby County, and would have once been one of the dominate local species.
Finally, I would recommend that you invest in a Treegator bag. The bags are durable, and will last for several seasons, but are especially important during the first two seasons, especially in periods of even moderate drought, if you keep them filled with water.
While Arbor Day is still several weeks away, I would encourage every resident to consider planting a tree this year. It’s not too early to select the species you want to plant. It’s not too early to prepare the site you’ve selected. And it is certainly not too early to place your order for that perfect tree.
The writer is the mayor of Sidney.