Pick up some batteries at the grocery store and receive a free evergreen seedling. Stop in for some fast food and get a free evergreen seedling. Open your mail and -- surprise! -- it's a free evergreen seedling.
Now a tree is a valuable thing. Beautiful, fruitful, refreshes the spirit, purifies the air, fun to climb, etc. It pulls its weight around the house -- three shade trees can cut air conditioning needs by 5 to 30 percent. And it does its share to regulate Earth's atmosphere -- one forest tree absorbs 26 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, using the carbon for growth and releasing the oxygen. One hundred newly planted trees take up about 600,000 tons of carbon a year.
But, really. Free evergreen seedlings? What kind of evergreens are they? Native to where? What kind of soil, moisture, sun do they like? What kind of mites, blights and scales like them? How tall will they grow? And, most important, what kind of parent are you prepared to be?
You see, raising a tree requires a little education. As writer Ted Williams put it in a recent Audubon article, "Only God can make a tree, but any environmental illiterate can plant it in the wrong place." At best, the wrong plant in the wrong place will tend to be sickly and will require extra resources and care. At worst, the plant will do too well, spreading like a weed, crowding out native species and sucking up all the moisture and nutrients around it.
So don't dive into a well-meaning but misguided project to plant 25,000 Afghan pines in a naturally treeless prairie. And don't rush outside with your garden spade in one hand and your free evergreen seedling in the other. Do a little research. Plant the right tree in the right place.
Whether you are participating in a massive tree-planting program or just plunking a tree in your yard, there are some choices you need to make.
First, choose a species that is hardy in your region. Better yet -- choose a native, a tree that has adapted over eons to your conditions. It'll get along better with the local worms, insects and microorganisms that should be thriving in your soil.
Choose a tree that is trouble-free -- not pest- or disease-prone -- in your area. If you are planting in the city, make sure you choose a tree that is smog resistant, too.
Make sure you pick one whose water needs you can live with. A water guzzler in a dry climate will mean extra work and higher water bills. It won't be doing the environment any favors, either. Most trees like a lot of sun. If the spot is shady, pick a shade-tolerant tree.
If water lies on the ground at the site you've picked, choose a tree that likes getting its feet wet. Otherwise, roots will rot and your tree will be an invalid for all its short life.
What is the soil in your region like? If it tends to be alkaline, as many inner-city soils are, some tree species will droop and yellow.
Do you have height restrictions? Find out how high a tree will grow and pick one that won't dwarf your house or spoil your view. Excessive pruning mutilates a tree and robs it of its natural, shapely beauty.
Are you planting more than one tree? Then consider planting a variety of species. They will support a greater diversity of animal and other plant life. And they will be less susceptible to diseases and pests. A stand of same-age, same-species trees has more in common with a cornfield than with a natural forest.
Now, where can you get all this information? Start with your county Cooperative Extension Service. Look them up in the blue pages of your phone book under county government, give them a call and ask to speak to a forester.
If you don't have a cooperative extension service agent in your town, try your city department of parks and recreation. Again, ask to speak to a city forester. If the parks department doesn't retain a forester, they can direct you to the city agency that does.
A good nursery is always an excellent source of information. Just make sure that the employee you're talking to is a knowledgeable one, and not the college kid hired to hump the trees out to the parking lot.
If you are interested in participating in big tree-planting projects, call Global Releaf, a program of the American Forestry Association, at (202) 667-3300, and ask for the name of a group near you. But don't assume that all of these groups know what they are doing. You may find yourself planting 25,000 Afghan pines in a prairie, after all. Ask the group's leaders whether they've considered all of the variables suggested here. Then ask them one more question: Who is going to be responsible for maintaining the trees the group plants? Don't participate if you're not satisfied with the answers.
Next week: The American Forestry Association's All New! Improved! tree-planting guidelines.
(Have a question of general interest that can be answered in this column? Please send it to Susan McGrath at P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.)