By Joseph Robertia
With the mercury hanging at just about 32 degrees and light flakes of snow falling from gray sky, it may not have felt like spring over the weekend, but that didn’t stop green-thumbed Alaskans from preparing for the “warm” weather season.
By 10 a.m. Saturday, an hour before the event began, people were already lining up for the annual Kenai Peninsula 4-H tree sale at Soldotna Creek Park. More than 20 tree species were offered this year, from the thick-growing Colorado blue spruce to the Amur maple, which consistently has some of the deepest red fall leaf colors, to the American mountain ash with orange-red berries that are a favorite among Bohemian waxwings and other bird species.
“We try to offer good-quality trees that people will have success with,” said Lydia Clayton, a 4-H agriculture/horticulture agent. “We choose landscape trees that can survive our cold temperatures, work with our long and short photo periods, are pest and somewhat moose resistant, and are trees that are beautiful.”
The trees, hundreds of them — and nearly all gone within the first hour — were brought in from a nursery in Montana, which Clayton said was selected due to it being in a relatively northern latitude with long winters, so that the trees will come already adapted to cold climates.
“They come in bare-rooted, so people can see that it has no root issues and that it is healthy and everything is growing in the right direction,” she said.
The 4-Hers on hand also provided information, and offered a variety of publications, on how to successfully transplant the saplings, or, since it was snowing that day, how to hold them over for a few days until they could be planted.
Clayton said the tree sale is one of the largest 4-H fundraisers of the year. The money raised goes to a variety of things, such as covering costs for local and districtwide activities and travel expenses. More than the money raised, though, is that the event teaches the kids valuable life skills.
“They don’t just learn about trees and landscaping, they’ve got tables set up where they’ll sell crafts, and this event gives the 4-Hers customer service skills and teaches them about entrepreneurship,” Clayton said.
Tana Butler, a 4-H mom from Kenai, agreed. Too often kids are separated from those younger or older than themselves, but events like the tree sale give them real-world experience with people of all ages and from different walks of life.
“4-H is always trying to get the kids to interact with the public and talking to other adults,” she said.
Butler’s daughter, Eli, was working the tree sale. It was just one of the 4-H activities in which she takes part, in addition to raising a steer for Junior Market Livestock and raising pups that will grow to be guide dogs.
“I like taking part in 4-H events because they help the program as a whole,” Eli said.
While people at the 4-H sale purchased ornamentals, in Sterling native tree species could be dug for free as part of the Alaska Division of Forestry and Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ inaugural Go Wild Roadside Tree Seedling Dig.
The purpose of the event is to provide Alaskans with free seedlings — including spruce, birch, aspen and willow — from the Sterling Highway right-of-way, in the hope the young trees will be used for landscaping, wildlife habitat enhancement and Firewise projects. The proposed area was checked to be sure it was clear of invasive species so that these were not accidentally spread farther.
“In talking with homeowners, one of the most common concerns we hear is there is a real need for affordable native species for use on private property,” said Judy Reese, stewardship forester. “Since DOT would be clearing these sections along the road anyway, it seemed like making these natural nurseries available to the public would be a better use of the resource.”
Within the first hour Saturday, more than 10 groups of people showed up to dig trees. Some left with just a few buckets of bushy spruce, while others arrived with flatbed trailers carrying more than 150 seedlings.
“This is our first event and we’ve tried to time it when the trees are still dormant, but the ground is soft enough to dig them up. We’d like to do more events in the future, possibly in fall or next spring. We’d like to partner with HEA to dig seedlings along their section lines,” Reese said.
Since it was an inaugural event, Reese and the other foresters provided transplant information to those who dug, as well as marking flags to keep an eye on them throughout the year.
“We’re keeping track of how many trees go out and we’re getting contact information from people so we can check in next summer and see how the transplanting went and how many survived,” she said.