New gravel nursery sprouts trees for Missoula

Students with the University of Montana’s College of Forestry and Conservation volunteered Thursday to plant new trees in several city parks. (Photo by Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

Under a gray sky in Missoula’s Wapikiya Park, a group of forestry students with the University of Montana joined staffers with Missoula Parks and Recreation’s Forestry Division to plant a half-dozen new trees – young oaks and maples that will grow to shade the park’s barren perimeter.

The planting, which took place at a variety of locations across the city this week, represents the first crop of bare-root trees shipped in from Oregon and nursed at the city’s new gravel bed at the Wastewater Treatment Facility.

There, in just six short months, the trees sprouted vital fibrous roots, which gives them a chance to thrive while increasing their long-term survival.

“We had 55 in the gravel bed we’re planting this fall,” said Karen Sippy, executive director of Trees for Missoula. “The long-term goal is to put 100 trees in the ground each fall with volunteers to supplement what the city staff is able to do – and to get volunteers to get some buy-in for our urban forest.”

The new gravel bed safely holds bare root stock for 3-6 months, allowing young trees to increase their root volume. This approach to planting shaves nearly 75 percent off the old method, which involved shipping trees with a large root ball wrapped in burlap and wire mesh.

“When you’re putting a ball and burlap in, and you take away the cage and the burlap, tons of that dirt just falls away,” said Townsend. “When it falls, it’s tearing out all those fibrous roots. We lose 90 percent of those roots when you put ball and burlap in.”

Since September, volunteers and city staff have joined Trees for Missoula in a number of plantings. More than a dozen new trees have been planted on Third Street, while others found a home at Playfair Park and Russell Street Park.

Thursday’s planting took a dozen students with UM’s College of Forestry and Conservation to Wapikiya and Whitaker parks. The trees they planted varied from maple and oak to crabapple and sycamore.

“We try to put them in places where we have homeowners who will water and commit to the trees’ long-term care,” said Marie Anderson, a certified arborist with Parks and Recreation. “You have to think 50 to 100 years out. We need homeowners who will really care for these trees for the first 20 years of their life.”

The city purchased the 55 trees for roughly $2,000, while Trees for Missoula covered $2,300 in costs related to transportation, irrigation and gravel.

“It’s going to be really hard for us to keep up with the number of trees that have to come out, just due to over-maturity and senescence,” said Anderson. “We have a lot of trees that were damaged in the snowstorm in 2000, and again in the ‘windmageddon’ storm last year. We have a lot of really structurally unsound trees out there and trees with major die-back.”

Chris Boza, the city’s urban forester, said the new gravel bed will serve the city well by cutting costs and allowing it to plant more trees. It also enables the city to plant larger, more mature trees during the shoulder seasons to ensure both age and species diversity.

That, he said, is vital to the urban forest’s long-term health.

“Next year, we’ll again be planting about 200 traditional nursery trees,” said Boza. “An aggressive reforestation program is the cornerstone of the city’s urban forest management plan, and we’re always on the lookout for methods to plant more trees and increase their survival rate.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com