May 24, 2010

Arbor Day Trees

I have been a member of the Arbor Day Foundation for years.  It's a nonprofit conservation organization, and you can follow the link to read about it.  Membership is just $15 a year, and with your membership you get 10 free trees.  Free trees ... how could I resist?

They ship the trees each spring after I pay my membership dues.  The trees are 12 inch twigs and they are bare root.  That means they arrive completely dormant, with no dirt and no containers.  They are wrapped in a plastic bag with moisture gel on their naked roots, and they are small enough to come in a large envelope stuffed in my mailbox.  They look dead but they're not.

Here's what they look like, out of the packaging:
(they were exposed like this just for a few moments to take the photo, then immediately plunged into a bucket of water.  You don't want the fine roots to  dry out even a little.)

Over the years I have had mixed success planting each year's worth of new free trees.  Some don't make it.  But here is a photo gallery of some that did succeed, all of them having started out as the kind of sticks you see above, and all of them planted four years ago:
River Birch (Betula nigra), planted in 2006.  It's a very fast grower, and I've had to prune it quite a bit already.  It's about 10 feet tall in just four years.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis), planted in 2006 out in the meadow.  The little stick was eaten to the very ground by a rabbit the first year, so this growth is really from 2007.   It's going gangbusters now, but I have yet to see it bloom.  It's about four and a half feet tall.

Norway spruce (Picea abies).  I have two of these planted in the meadow since 2006.  They both took a few years to do anything, but now they are putting out lots of growth.  This was one single tuft of needles attached to a root when I planted it.  It is now about two feet high, but getting fat.

Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa), planted in 2006, then moved very unceremoniously in late fall, 2007 (I kind of ripped it out, tearing roots, thinking I would not keep it, but then replanted it).  It will get very large and shrubby and form a thicket.  It's four feet high now, despite my rough handling.

A sugar maple on the hillside is growing well too, but it's surrounded by other trees and vegetation and wouldn't come out for a decent photo.

I also had great success with crabapples and hawthorns, but they get cedar rust from the nearby junipers here in my yard, so they were not good choices for me. 

But I've had failures, and this year I am trying a new method.  I've installed the little twiglets in a protected part of the back of my garden and I will grow them on for a year or two before planting them in the meadow or wherever they'll go permanently.

In the past, I lost twigs that were too exposed to the elements and too vulnerable to wildlife when I planted them out in the field.  And an experiment last summer to get them started in pots wasn't very successful.

So this year I have the tiny little sprigs in the ground, being watched over by some big spruces and mentored by other garden shrubs, out of the wind, away from the elements, and hopefully learning something about growth and survival from their big cousins.

My 10 free trees
White Pine
Colorado Blue Spruce
River Birch
Northern Red Oak
Sugar Maple
Silver Maple
White Flowering Dogwood
Red Maple
Pin Oak

Come back in four years and see what they all look like.


  1. I used to get trees form them but haven't lately. I found the maples, crabapples, and birches grow well. I still have some other trees that someone gave me from Arbor Day in a pot that I need to transplant - maybe this week!

  2. I am glad to see that your trees are doing well. Do you have any ideas of why some have lived and others have not? Is it the section in your yard? Wildlife get to them?

    I would like to learn from your successes and failures?

  3. We're Arbor Day members too! Like you I've had mixed success. What has worked best for me if I get the trees in the spring is to pot them up and set them on my front porch, let them grow, and then set them out in the fall. Our biggest baby redbuds are from the ADF. The biggest one is at least 8 feet tall now and was covered in flowers this spring.

  4. A friend of mine has been doing this for years also, and she does start her babies in a little nursery bed, as you're planning. Even so, they don't all make it - but such a worthy cause! Kudos :)

  5. Dave, I figured since you love to propagate anything you can, you'd be trying these little bare root twigs. Glad to hear you've had some success.

    Anonymous, I've made every mistake possible with these trees: I've planted out in the elements in poor soil too soon, exposed them to too much winter wind, wildlife got several, I put them in pots that were then rained on too heavily, or that were potted when it was awfully cold for along spell, etc.

    Sweet bay, isn't it remarkable to see these little twigs turn into real trees?

    Cyndy, I do hope the nursery bed approach works this year, but I am prepared for losses.

  6. I want a River Birch too. What fun to have enough property to be able to plant so many trees. I planted a pin oak where I used to live. It is so pretty now, 16 years later.

  7. Lisa, it must be rewarding to see the tree you planted 16 years ago.. even if it's not yours anymore.

  8. I was given a few "twigs" of a pine tree (I'm so lazy I haven't even figured out which one it is) about 8 or 9 years ago at the state fair. They weren't even eight inches tall. Fast forward to today, the survivor is probably ten feet tall.

    In my experience, seedlings or very young trees grow much quicker than older, larger specimens. It's hard to content myself with that though. I want instant gratification in the yard and waiting eight years is difficult.

    Christine in Alaska

  9. Christine, isn't it amazing? They grow! They really grow!


Sorry about requiring code verification -- I experimented with turning it off to make commenting easier, and I got too much spam. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and to type in silly codes. I appreciate hearing from you.