How Not to Plant Trees Wrong

A guide to how community members are spreading native saplings in Athens, Ohio.

By Katelyn Rousch

Underfoot to Cryosleep

A bucket of trees made the honey-colored silhouette of Samuel Gutekanst easy to identify as I searched for him at dusk. Like a proud father, he smuggled two of his year-old saplings into the interview. The red oak was more soil than tree. A sturdy black bag supported its foot-long taproot, leaving a tiny stem and handful of leaves exposed at the top. The silver maple was pencil-thin, straining out of its small potting bag with almost a dozen leaves unfurled in a last-ditch search for the fall sunlight.

Gutekanst recounted his first acorn collection with a smile. “It was kind of spontaneous,” he said. “I grabbed 100-something acorns because that would be really cool to grow them throughout the winter and have something green in my basement.”

Though he is only a senior attending Athens High School, Gutekanst is a self-taught flora enthusiast who has germinated thousands of seeds from dozens of native tree species. Since 2019, he has given away or planted more than 230 trees.

“I have, like, 300 trees at my house right now,” Gutekanst said. “I’m going to be growing another 500 this year.”

Samuel Gutekanst with a red oak (left) and silver Maple (right).
Credit: Katelyn Rousch

In Fall of 2020, Gutekanst noticed there was an unusual number of acorns flooding the Ohio University campus. This flux of acorn production is known as a mast year, and Gutekanst was not the only one who noticed. Around the same time, activist Todd Swearingen was also struck by the number of acorns flooding college green.

“There were thousands of students going pitter-patter and crunch all over the acorns,” Swearingen said. “It was just one of those things where it just hits you that you just drop everything, and you do it right there. No ifs, ands, or buts.” 

Like a sailor tracking the tides, Swearingen has been collecting acorns during these mast years for decades—usually around a thousand each time. While he’s happy to see others getting involved, Swearingen is not afraid to pursue projects he cares about independently. 

“If you wait for other people to take initiative as a group, there’s going to be a lot of wasted time, a lot of wasted resources,” Swearingen said. 

During our interview, he was patient in his explanation of “how not to plant trees wrong,” a critique of how environmentalism has been relegated to a series of events and days rather than a practice of habit.

“We have to have a project in which we can organize 50 people to meet on the same day in the same corner in the parking lot, the same color of shovel, going to the same spot in individual cars wasting more fuel—as opposed to just whenever acorns are falling and whenever your tree is ready to plant,” Swearingen said. “We burn our most precious resource, which is our humans. Instead of making it easier for them and getting them involved, we have to have all these rules.”

When Sam Crowl, Ph.D., the Associate Director of Sustainability and Tree Advisory Committee member at Ohio University, received two separate emails about acorn collecting in fall 2020, he saw an opportunity. 

“We [the Office of Sustainability] are very passionate about trees and propagating trees and protecting forests,” Crowl said. “[Gutekanst] got connected with our office, not only to increase our efforts of people that are doing this process but also to find an outlet for people to plant these seedlings because he had hundreds.”

Crowl assembled a team of volunteers, who learned from Gutekanst and Swearingen to use buckets of water to check for viable acorns. If the seeds sink, they can be harvested for the next step in the germination process: stratification. 

“Seeds are really smart, actually. They know what’s going on around them,” Gutekanst said. “You have to kind of trick it to think that it’s gone through winter.”

Most refrigerators are home to condiments, fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy products. Gutekanst, however, had over three hundred acorns in his icebox. While this might sound like the start of a typical math problem, this is how Gutekanst put his seeds through a cold phase (30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit) called stratification that they needed to sprout—a trick he taught Crowl.

“I’d never done this [stratification] before and I was, quite frankly, a little skeptical,” Crowl said. “I had four or five dozen acorns in my freezer and I couldn’t tell that they were doing anything. But sure enough, they sprouted. Ninety percent of them sprouted tap roots. And then in the spring we got back together, and we planted all of these in containers.”

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Inventory, 85 percent of forest land in Ohio is privately owned. Of individuals in possession of ten or more acres, less than 20 percent have ever received forest management advice. According to Swearingen, many communities are losing or have lost their environmental know-how. Participating in simple practices like tree planting can help rekindle that knowledge and connect people back to the land.

“It’s kind of like asking a kid, ‘Where do we get milk?’—‘Why, Kroger’s, of course!’ Forget the cow,” Swearingen said. “We’ve completely forgotten the acorns. We’ve forgotten the seeds. We go to the nursery to get our trees.”

In the spring of 2021, Gutekanst and Swearingen partnered with the Office of Sustainability and the local Arbor Day Committee to distribute their saplings at local venues. While this may seem like the end of the tree-planting journey, getting those trees out to the community was just the start.

The Sound of Struggle

On the west side of Ohio University, shuffled between the bustling transportation center and chic modern lines of the newest addition to the medical campus, is the Resource Center. This brick building is home base for Susan Calhoun, who is Landscape Coordinator and member of the Tree Advisory Committee for the university. Her office doubles as a docking station for various supplies, seeds, and educational materials. Calhoun’s phone buzzes continually with updates from her teams, whose daily surveys of campus turn up constant threats—often to fledgling trees.

“Susan has been our main Lorax. She’s the protector of our trees,” Crowl explained when he suggested I reach out to her for this project. 

In the 34 years Calhoun has fought for Ohio University’s natural spaces, she has learned to be strategic in her ministrations. Planting a tree is a significant investment of time and labor. With the budget cuts Calhoun often contends with, sapling mortality is not something she can afford.

“The investment is large, and you just don’t want to lose that time. You don’t want to go backwards,” Calhoun said. 

Gutekanst and Swearingen have a different strategy. For them, acorns are a numbers game. Collect 1000, 600 are viable. Stratify 600, 550 sprout. Plant 550, 500 survive the transfer to soil. Within the first five years, they expect most of the remaining 500 saplings will be eaten, trampled, or culled. 

“It’s much easier to thin out than it is to replant,” Swearingen said. “To plant an acorn all you’ve got to do is kick an inch of soil up, throw the acorn down and cover it back up and walk away. Nature does the rest.”

Nature can be a brutal mother to saplings on its own. Add human activity into the mix and the odds of survival can dwindle below the replacement rate for many tree species. Certain trees only thrive in perfect conditions, or under the careful attention of planters like Calhoun.

Ohio University groundskeepers planting a persimmon on Arbor Day 2021.
Credit: Susan Calhoun

“The forest systems of Ohio are subject to a number of regeneration stressors such as animal browsing (herbivory), invasive plants, insects, diseases, and changing climate,” reported the USDA 2016 Ohio forest inventory. “Young forest is becoming more scarce.”

According to Crowl, it has been a challenge protecting the oak saplings from animals. Swearingen spreads cayenne pepper as a taste-defense for trees on his property.

“Does a squirrel like hot sauce?” Swearingen joked. “Probably not.”

One of the greatest threats to trees in Athens is from deer, which regularly scrape the trunks of young trees and uproot saplings. Calhoun uses a variety of natural sprays and tree guards. Her teams must maintain these constantly to defend campus trees. 

“We don’t do anything to control them [deer], and it has radically changed the makeup of what I can put out in the landscape,” Calhoun said, holding up the plastic grating that is the tree equivalent of a bulletproof vest.

Another challenge to the numbers strategy is finding safe planting locations—away from university foot traffic. 

“They [students] destroy half the trees we plant just coming home drunk at three in the morning,” Gutekanst sighed, recalling a decimated site near a graveyard he’d attempted to plant some of his trees on.

Some threats to saplings are invisible in the short term. Professor of Geography and member of the Tree Advisory Committee at Ohio University, James Dyer, Ph.D., has studied the history of trees in the Midwest.

“I don’t think we really appreciate how wet it was compared to the previous 500 years. So climate has certainly changed. We kind of focus in on how it’s getting hotter. Especially since the late 1980s… it’s like every year seems to break the record of the previous year, but it has been very different,” Dyer said.

According to Dyer, trees like oaks can thrive in drier soil due to their deep taproot. Hundreds of years ago, this helped oaks become the dominant tree species in the Midwest when oak saplings could survive multi-year droughts trees like maples could not. 

“Over 50% of the trees were oak. And now, that number is below a quarter, so we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in oaks and a concurrent increase in things like maples and tulip poplar,” Dyer said.

Human activity, including non-natural climate change, makes it difficult to project how the forest canopy might change in the next few decades.

“It’s a complicated web. There’s so many—they’re not so little—things that we’re doing simultaneously, and they’re each having an effect. It’s that interaction we don’t know how it’s going to play out,” Dyer said.

Oaks and other nut-bearing trees are keystone species—essential food sources and habitats for the surrounding ecosystem. Some people are concerned as to whether a further decline in these trees could be problematic for forests down the road. For the moment, Ohio’s trees face a much more pervasive threat: invasive species.

A Case for Removal

In the glacier-softened ravines of Appalachia, hemlock evergreens are shriveling to husks. When wooly adelgids finds a new host, white fuzzy nodules signal the presence of these vampiric sapsuckers. Without insecticide treatment, it’s only a few years before the needles shrivel and photosynthesis fails. The tree becomes a mottled brown husk, leaving the heat-sensitive ecosystems below exposed to the afternoon sun.

“[Hemlock] plays such a role in these lovely ravine areas…shading and cooling that water and keeping that ecosystem right for all the inhabitants,” Susan said. “There aren’t many other needled evergreens that will take that kind of shade.”

Invasive species are defined by the USDA as native or non-native species that propagate in such a way that lowers the biodiversity of a region. The result is a monoculture, or “forest deserts,” as Swearingen calls them—a phenomenon that also characterizes the way humans often conduct reforestation.

“Emerald Ash Borer, Gypsy Moth, Beech Bark disease—the list is growing horrifically long,” Dyer said. “We have a lot of invasive species, a lot of pests… Then there’s invasive plants, which can impede the establishment of new forests… A 100-foot-tall oak tree probably doesn’t care if garlic mustard is growing around it, but that’s probably a different story if it’s an acorn trying to get started there.”

According to the USDA 2016 Ohio forest inventory, over 95% of plots surveyed had invasives present. At the time of the study, 40 different invasive plants were being monitored.

“I’m definitely on the hunt for invasive trees… then working them out of our landscape,” Calhoun said. “The nature of those invasives is they’re terrific competitors and that’s why they’ve taken a hold.”

Gutekanst spends hours in the forests surrounding his home culling invasives. Both he and Calhoun have a vendetta against the fast-spreading Ailanthus tree.

“The Tree of Heaven is from China, and it does not live up to its name. It is a tree of Hell. It smells like a rotting carcass,” Gutekanst said. “A lot of them are allelopathic, which means they release chemicals from the roots that suppress native trees, so basically it’s like an herbicide that they release from their roots, and some native trees are like that too but that really gives an edge.”

Stores such as Lowe’s and Walmart contribute to the problem by marketing aesthetically pleasing invasive species such as the Callery pear.

“I stick to native stuff as I think everyone should and they should be aware of what they plant,” Gutekanst said. “Things evolved here for millions of years. Don’t f*** it up. You don’t want to mess with that cycle.”

As these Athens residents have shown, there are many ways ordinary people can make an impact with daily donations of time and thoughtfulness. 

“We kind of expect the experts to take over and save our trees,” Crowl said. “But having gone through that process last year… my big takeaway is that we can all actually have a major impact if we put our minds to it.”

Or as Swearingen puts it, “Just go out in the back yard and plant one [tree] for heaven sakes.”

Cover image: Collecting acorns on college green. Credit: Sam Crowl

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