“He who plants a tree, plants hope,” wrote Lucy Larcom. It seems neither floods or being in the fourth year of an agricultural economic downturn has deterred hope in rural Iowa, because more and more farmers are planting trees. As we approach 2019 National Arbor Day, it’s time to take another look at the true value of trees to those who plant them and those who enjoy them.

We live in a world where the ‘planting’ we do these days is too often relegated to positioning ourselves before a computer screen or TV. We complain about our teenagers spending hours playing Fortnite, yet we spend more time each year binging our favorite shows on Netflix. Is anyone surprised by studies that show Americans spend 92 percent of their time indoors?

Some cultures are trying to reclaim nature and trees to help them get off the couch and improve health. Walking through the woodlands is embraced in Japan, known as “shinrin-yoku” (forest bathing). It’s even prescribed by doctors as a vital way to destress and improve health and productivity, and this is the kind of ‘soak’ you can do over your lunch hour, fully clothed!

While trees are beloved by stressed-out urban folks to promote relaxation and health, they’ve always had a more practical attraction to Iowa farmers; trees protect the soil, reduce energy costs and farm odors and also help control snow in winter.

Livestock farmers, in particular, are planting more trees in Iowa, thanks to the innovative work being done by the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers (CSIF) and their Green Farmstead Partner Program. That program, which partners with Trees Forever and Iowa Nursery Landscape Association, taps into tree nursery experts in 99 Iowa counties to plant trees on livestock farms. The Green Farmstead Partner program put more than 70,000 trees in the ground in the last 10 years! “We see the interest in trees far from peaking, which speaks highly for Iowa livestock and poultry farmers because it comes at a time when they’re struggling with depressed commodity prices. They still want to invest in trees because they want to be good neighbors and do the right thing,” says CSIF Executive Director Brian Waddingham.

Trying to get more farmers to embrace their ‘inner Lorax’ and plant trees pushed the Green Farmstead Partner organizers to add an interactive nursery map on their website so farmers can see planting designs and connect to tree experts in their area.

Of course, you don’t have to live on a farm to plant a tree. Nearly every state in the nation has upcoming National Arbor Day events planned, and you can go to their website to check one out in your area (shovel optional!). Or, if there isn’t anything on the calendar in your area but you want to plant a tree with your family, here are three basic rules I learned this past year, while studying to become a Master Gardener:

  1. Location, location, location. It matters in real estate just as much as tree planting! Ask yourself what kind of light is your tree going to get? How big will this tree get? What kind of weather and soil does the tree prefer? In other words, falling in love with the redwoods in California is one thing---getting them to grow three feet from your front porch in Iowa is another. Also, before you plant a tree in a public place, better call your local city hall to learn the rules.
  2. Pests—know what’s out there in your area before you choose which tree to plant. Planting an ash tree in Iowa isn’t a good plan because emerald ash borer, which kills those trees, is pretty much statewide by now. There are pests and fungus issues with other trees, too, so you should call your local nursery or your friendly Iowa State University Extension Outreach tree experts before you reach for the shovel. You don’t want to spend time, money and labor planting a tree that could be wiped out by pests before you even get to enjoy the shade of its branches!
  3. Site preparation matters. If it were about just digging a hole, my chihuahua would be qualified. You should dig a hole two to three times the width of the tree ball roots and make sure it’s not too deep or too shallow. Again, your friendly Extension horticulturalist could help you out on that one.

No matter where you live or what your reasons for planting a tree, I certainly hope you do. And not just on National Arbor Day. A tree is a testament of your commitment to something beyond yourself. A tree carries a footprint that can last long past your own. No matter where you go, what you do or who you become, the tree you plant will stand as a testament to your hope for this generation, and those yet to be born.