Guest Columnist

Cedar Rapids can reforest a better, stronger tree canopy

Thoughts from a woodland owner, a retired UI groundskeeper, and a survivor of the 2006 tornado that struck Iowa City

Stands of trees along East Post Road show heavy canopy loss in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. Cleanup continues
Stands of trees along East Post Road show heavy canopy loss in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. Cleanup continues around the area following the Aug. 10 derecho, which left hundreds of thousands of Iowans without power and displaced many whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the heavy winds. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

The devastation and human suffering caused by the recent derecho is heart-rending. For tree lovers, the collective damage to our forest canopy — especially in the Cedar Rapids metro area — is hard to even comprehend. Many lost trees were like family members — trees people grew up with from childhood, trees with swings and tree houses, trees that sheltered picnics, trees that shared and held memories — like a first kiss, or of a lost loved one.

But the derecho has also given us a great opportunity — to recreate that forest canopy better than ever and to create new and lasting memories for ourselves, our families and our neighborhoods.

As a woodland owner, a retired University of Iowa groundskeeper, and a survivor of the 2006 tornado that struck our east side Iowa City neighborhood, I’ve seen a lot of tree destruction up close (and heard it crashing down around me).

While the recent storm took down many perfectly healthy trees in the Cedar Rapids area, in Iowa City it was somewhat different. A close look at the trees that came down, or were damaged here, often revealed problems in the trees. Many were old trees (often hollowed out), many were trees that had been poorly, or never properly, pruned — trees with two leaders (what arborists call a split crotch), or with “outrigger” branches that should have been removed or cut back. Many were trees that were “volunteers” to begin with — trees that “nature planted” too close to buildings or power lines. Often, these are species that make poor urban shade trees — walnuts, mulberries, box elders, and ailanthus. Sometimes, they are species we planted that are prone to storm damage — Callery pear, soft maple, and Kentucky coffee trees.

In my twenty years of working at Finkbine Golf Course, I did a lot of storm cleanup — and learned a lot about the way nature can do its own natural pruning.

Early in that job, I came across a flyer from the Marion-based Trees Forever — “Starting Oaks From Acorns In Containers.” It was written by John Marsh, a volunteer from Cedar Rapids, and described how to collect acorns, store them, and start new oak seedlings. That sounded pretty good to me and I set about following John’s instructions.

The really important thing to know about growing your own oaks is how well they do when “grown-in-place.” That means doing it like nature does — starting the tree out from the beginning in the place it will be. That’s because oaks (like more than a few others) send down deep tap roots — as deep as four feet in the first year! You can’t duplicate that with nursery trees. Which means that a young oak, grown-in-place, will quickly and easily outgrow any nursery tree — and be a long-term survivor.

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Over the past three decades, I’ve grown hundreds of oaks (hickories, hazelnuts, and coffee trees, too) and planted many at Finkbine, on the west UI Athletic campus, and in my east side Iowa City neighborhood. I’ve also given out hundreds of tree seedlings to anyone I could get to take them. When I was a reading volunteer at Longfellow Elementary our kindergarten classes used this method to grow oak seedlings in their classrooms — and each child got to take home their own tree (with planting instructions) when school let out in June.

I like to think trees are like children. It is simply amazing how fast they grow up! And, if you take careful care of them, they grow to be strong and healthy — and, much sooner than you know, you will sit in their shade and they will take care of you.

You could start to reforest Cedar Rapids this fall, by gathering and storing acorns (and other tree seeds, too) and planning your own tree crop for next year. If you’d like an updated flyer on how to do this, send me an email (along with your snail mail address) at: jcmwalt@infionline.net.

Jim Walters lives in Iowa City.

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