[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly church activities, Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays.]
Arbor Day, being celebrated nationally tomorrow, tends to get lost in all of the hubbub created by Earth Day, which comes about a week before it. But whereas Earth Day can leave your best creation care efforts a little muddled (Do we celebrate? Do we mourn? Do something big? Take a small step?), there is one distinct goal on Arbor Day: Plant a tree.
Now celebrated all over the world, Arbor Day originated in the United States where it was founded by J. Sterling Morton, Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland. Prior to holding that position, Morton was pioneer to what was then the Nebraska territory. There he emphasized the importance of tree-planting for agricultural sustainability, and inaugurated Arbor Day on April 10, 1872. The day began to be celebrated nationwide in 1885, and is marked today as families, municipalities, and organizations join to plant trees, clean up parks, take tree identification hikes, and dedicate trees or forests in the names of loved ones.
So how can your church join in the tree-planting festivities this Friday—or at any time when tree-planting is appropriate in your part of the country? Fortunately, planting trees is a fun, simple, and symbolic activity that resonates benefits and beauty long after the tree is planted.
Why Plant a Tree?
There are so many reasons—beyond just acknowledging Arbor Day—to plant a tree as a church community. As Flourish’s friend Matthew Sleeth has repeatedly pointed out in his writing, trees run through the Bible from start to finish: from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in Genesis to the “tree of life on either side of the river of the water of life” promised in Revelation. Trees provide wood for the ark, fuel for the altar, work for hands of Jesus the carpenter, and the instrument of the sacrifice that became our salvation.
Symbolically, then, trees are significant to the Christian story. Perhaps this is because they are literally so crucial to life. Through the process of photosynthesis, green-leaved trees absorb the carbon dioxide that many human activities (including just breathing!) put into the atmosphere, and transform it into oxygen to sustain us. Tree roots also help clean and filter our drinking water and keep soil in place to nourish crops.
Planting trees in a creation that has been degraded therefore becomes a restorative activity. It affirms the beauty and glory of our God for all to see, and it benefits our neighbors by making the world a healthier place to live.
Choose a Location
Consider both aesthetics and practicality as your church decides where to plant a new tree. Of course, the conditions required to keep your tree healthy depend on the species of tree you plant. But in general, what every tree will require most is plenty of sunshine and space to spread, as well as more particular watering requirements.
- One of the most important considerations you must evaluate is how much space you can allow for a tree. Have lots of open space? That means you can probably plant a larger tree like a maple or an oak. Have only curbside green space? You may need to stick with a smaller tree like a redbud or a crapemyrtle. Learn about different trees’ heights, root and branch spreads, and growing patterns, and then choose one safely by taking into consideration buildings, sidewalks, pipes, utility lines, or other trees it will have to avoid.
- If your church is looking for an aesthetically pleasing tree, you may want to find an attractive tree that will fit in a prominent area on your property, or an area that can be landscaped to further enhance the tree’s beauty.
- When choosing a tree, be aware ahead of time of what fruits, nuts, or leaves it may drop. If raking maple leaves from the church yard will be a burden, or stepping on gingko tree fruit in the parking lot (they’re quite smelly!) will be a nuisance, choose an alternative tree, like a conifer that won’t shed leaves each fall, or a male gingko, which won’t produce those stinky fruit.
Choose a Tree
Once you know the growing habits that your planting location can accommodate, you know what you are looking for in a tree in
a general sense. However, there are other considerations to make when choosing your tree. Is your church looking for a native species? Something that bears fruit? A tree that is stunning to look at? A tree with symbolic meaning for your church community? Remember that you will need to choose a tree that will survive in your area, to begin with! Choosing a tree through a local expert will help with this preliminary requirement. But beyond that, your choices are wide and varied:
- Native trees: If your church community is interested in protecting its soil, conserving water, and providing a habitat for local birds and wildlife, consider planting a tree that is native to your region. Plants that are native to your area will require less care, as they were created to be suited to local soil and weather conditions. They’ll also attract native creatures, which will help to balance the ecosystem in your area through biodiversity. Find a tree that is appropriate for your locale through the plant database at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website.
- Beautiful trees: If aesthetically pleasing landscaping is your church’s priority, there is no shortage of beautiful trees to choose from. Spring blossoms, fall foliage, winter needles, or intricate branching may appeal to your community or fit your planting site perfectly. For a selection of blossoming and most popular trees, visit the Arbor Day Foundation’s website.
- Fruit trees: If it’s food you’re looking for, well, you already know where those apples and oranges come from! Planting a fruit tree, if your community is willing and able to care for these often more fragile trees, can provide a great bounty for a church garden or a local food pantry. Learn more about appropriate fruit trees for your area through the Arbor Day Foundation’s website.
- Symbolic trees: Planting a tree is a symbolic gesture that can indicate endurance, life, beauty, and abundance. It can be a concrete and meaningful way to honor a church member who has passed away, or to celebrate the opening of a new church building or the establishment of a new ministry.
When your church is ready and able to plant a tree, you’ll find it to be a simple, but rewarding, exercise—something even kids can enjoy and learn from. Keep these general tips in mind as you plan your planting:
- Although April 30 is the national observance of Arbor Day, best planting dates will vary from state to state, and even county to county. Check with your county’s cooperative extension office to determine the appropriate date for planting trees in your area.
- You will likely receive your tree from a local nursery, and it will be a small, manageable size. It may come as a root ball in surrounded by dirt and in a container, or as a bare root. Follow these instructions from the Arbor Day Foundation for planting a tree that arrives in a container, and for a tree that arrives as a bare root.
- Provide your new tree with plenty of water, especially at the start of its young life on your property. A bare root tree will require more constant and thorough watering throughout the year than a container tree.
Even if your tree is being planted for a reason other than to memorialize an individual or to commemorate a special day, you can still make the tree planting event a special one for your church community.
- Sing a hymn or praise chorus that mentions trees or forests and the way they give witness to God’s glory. You Shall Go Out With Joy, How Great Thou Art, This is My Father’s World, Fairest Lord Jesus, Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee are all good songs to start with. (See Flourish’s list of creation care-related worship songs for more ideas.)
- Commemorate the planting by placing a plaque alongside the tree. The plaque can tell passersby about the tree and the reason for planting it, or about the person or event it may have been planted to honor. A simple Bible verse is a good way to acknowledge that the tree was planted to honor the Creator, above all. (Genesis 1:11-12, Chronicles 16:33, Psalm 148:7-9, Isaiah 55:12-13, and Revelation 22:1-2 are just a few of the Bible verses that acknowledge trees in a meaningful way.)
- Announce the planting of the tree in church, so that more folks can join you, and others who aren’t unable to attend the planting can feel a part of the church’s creation care-related activities. You may also wish to provide a sheet in your church bulletin, or a note on your website, on the reason for planting the tree and some information about the species you’ve chosen, so that the whole community can be responsible for the stewardship of the tree.
Keep it Up!
Literally! You want your tree to thrive and stretch tall into the sky. While each species will require slightly different care, here are the basics for caring for your community’s tree throughout its lifetime:
- Water your tree deeply at its base at the start of its life. Bare root trees will require more watering than container trees, and so should be given a generous watering each week for a year. If you plant a tree that is native to your area, its will demand less watering, since its needs will be in accordance with the local moisture levels and precipitation rates.
- Mulching around your tree will help it retain water for longer periods of time and protect it from weeds, lawnmower damage, and soil compaction. Clear an area between 3-10 feet (depending on the size of the tree) around the tree’s base and keep it filled with 2-4 inches of mulch, not letting the mulch touch the trunk.
- Prune your tree’s branches as necessary throughout the years for safety and for the health of the tree. Each tree species’ pruning needs are slightly different, but the United States Department of Agriculture has a comprehensive guide to pruning on its website.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin’s native plant database
The Arbor Day Foundation’s comprehensive guide to trees and tree planting