Habitat in the backyard – Part 4: “Tree-ting” wildlife!

Teach young children how to encourage and observe wildlife in your home, school or daycare center by planting trees.

This is the fourth in a series of wildlife habitat articles that helps adults encourage wildlife in schoolyards, backyards, parks and other public areas. Since most children and adults enjoy observing wildlife, there are a number of small projects that could be done in an afternoon to encourage mammals, birds, reptiles and insects to populate the places you love.

Planting trees and other woody plants are a great way to increase wildlife in your school grounds or public area. Trees can provide protection from the weather and predators, food from its wood, leaves, flowers, fruit and nuts, and nesting habitat. There is more to growing trees than just dropping them in the ground and watching them grow into a bustling center of wildlife. The type of trees need to be selected appropriately, planted properly and maintained in order to be an asset to your landscape.

Here are a few useful tips to consider to attract more wildlife in your area:

Know your site
Look around where you are thinking of planting a tree. Is the site sunny or shaded? Is it wet or dry? How much traffic does it get? It can be helpful to get a soil test done to determine what kind of soil you have. How close is it to a building, power lines or other structures? Are there utilities running underground that tree roots might impair? How will it affect views when you are watching children in the schoolyard? Knowing the answers to these questions ahead of time will help you choose exactly the right kind of tree that will grow well in your favorite spot.

Tree selection
Not every tree is right for every landscape. Spending money on a tree that is wrong for your location is a waste of time and money. Do you want a conifer (needle-bearing) tree or one that has leaves drop every autumn? Are you concerned about kids pelting each other with acorns, walnuts and crabapples? A good on-line resource is the University of Illinois Extension website; it has helpful information to consider as you make your selection.

Tree planting
Improper planting can cause significant problems for the tree in the long term. If roots are not properly pruned or placed in the hole correctly, it can cause problems many years down the road. Another useful on-line resource comes from The Ohio State University Extension website; it contains plenty of good information on proper planting.

Tree maintenance
Whether a tree survives or not after planting depends a lot on how it is maintained and protected over the years. “Lawnmower blight” is when over-eager lawn mowers get too close to a tree and run into it. Trees can also be damaged by string trimmers. Either of these can open a small wound in the bottom of the tree that allows insect and disease to get in. This is the downfall of many trees on playgrounds. I rarely find a schoolyard where trees aren’t in poor shape due to this problem. Work with your maintenance department and educate them about the trees. You might also want to put stakes around the tree so it does not get damaged.

Trees also need to be watered, especially in their first year. To help ensure survival, some schools have a particular classroom “adopt” a tree and pull weeds from around its base, keep it watered and observe changes in the tree.

A properly selected, planted, and maintained tree can attract wildlife to your school ground for generations. Former students who return to the school can delight in the memories that had around the tree and enjoy the birds, mammals and insects who make it a home.

More information from Michigan State University Extension can be found in the “School Yard Habitat for People and Wildlife” bulletin and is available online.

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