By Cathy Lockman
Squirrels are Mother Nature’s version of the tree farmer, collecting seeds and carefully planting them every fall. But a group of dedicated community members can be pretty effective at those tasks, too. Just ask Tom Sisulak, the originator of the 1,000 Tree Planting Project, an all-volunteer effort to plant 1,000 trees on one day every fall in the village of Riverside.
Located nine miles west of downtown Chicago along the Des Plaines River, Riverside, one of the first planned communities in the United States, is known for its historic character, curvilinear streets and expansive green parkways. It was that green space that motivated Sisulak, who grew up in Riverside and returned 12 years ago to initiate the 1,000 Tree Planting Project in 2007.
“I had come back to Riverside to care for my parents, and I spent time jogging through the village,” Sisulak says. “I saw that the trees that I grew up enjoying as a boy near the river were nearing the end of their life span. They had provided beauty, shade and oxygen for hundreds of years. It seemed to me that it was time for other trees to take their place. That’s how the 1,000 Tree Planting Project began.”
Sisulak’s next step was to connect with Mike Collins, the village forester, to share his plans for organizing a community effort to add to the village’s tree population. With Collins’ support for the project and the blessing of the village, Sisulak began researching the tree seedlings he would purchase for the project, which was planned for April 2007.
But Mother Nature had another idea. Flooding along the Des Plaines River, concerns about the mosquitoes the flood spawned and the West Nile virus they carried, as well as an infestation of cicadas, conspired to put the spring event on hold.
Sisulak, who had been a tree farmer while living and working in Wisconsin before returning to Riverside, knew that the heat would take its toll on seedlings planted later in the spring, and he didn’t want to postpone the project for another year. He thus changed his focus from planting 1,000 seedlings to planting 1,000 seeds.
That meant Sisulak needed to gather close to 3,000 seeds, most of which he collected from the expansive green space that gives Riverside its nickname, Village in the Forest. Before sorting through the 3,000 seeds to determine which 1,000 would be the healthiest for planting, he spread them out on a picnic table to dry overnight. That’s when nature’s tree farmers took over. During the night, a family of ambitious squirrels worked overtime to collect all 3,000 seeds for themselves.
Again, Sisulak went back to the drawing board, storing the next 3,000 seeds in cardboard containers in his car trunk, where they would stay dry and could not be squirreled away. At the same time, he enlisted the help of the community to provide the manpower to get the planting done.
Members of the Riverside United Methodist Church got behind the project, as did local Boy Scouts and area families who saw it as an opportunity to support the environmental effort, enjoy time in nature and learn something in the process.
And learn they did. “Each year we have a seminar prior to the planting date in November, which gives us a chance to share the details of how to plant successfully, how to identify specific trees, and to educate people to the environmental impact of the effort and the legacy that it leaves in a community,” says Sisulak.
On the day of the 1,000 Tree Planting Project, now in its sixth year, 10 groups take their newfound naturalist skills, a jug of 100 assorted acorns, buckeyes, and walnut and hickory seeds, and Sisulak’s specially designed tree-planting tool and head to the shores of the Des Plaines River to find just the right spots to add to the village’s forest.
“We have approximately 9,000 trees in the village that the municipality manages,” Collins says. “Riverside has a strong tradition and vision for planting, and the 1,000 Tree Planting Project fits that vision of sowing seeds to help promote natural regeneration instead of just relying on the squirrels to do the work.”
How successful is the effort? Since the volunteers don’t mark where they plant their seeds, it’s difficult to know exactly, but Collins estimates that for every 10 seeds they plant, they might get as many as five to germinate and three to grow.
But, as Sisulak tells participants at the annual seminar, if you’re responsible for adding even just one tree to the landscape, you’re leaving an important legacy. “Some of the trees we plant through this project will be here in Riverside 100 or 200 years from now,” he explains to the volunteers. “People will enjoy them. They’ll provide oxygen for us to live. Deer, songbirds and other wildlife will all take advantage of the forest we plant. And there’s the added benefit of helping us to combat global warming.”
“Residents and staff in Riverside have a strong commitment to the urban canopy and the natural forest,” Collins says. “This project supports that, provides a strong overall sense of community, and promotes environmental awareness.”
Squirrels can’t do that.
More Trees, Please
The Riverside 1,000 Tree Planting Project will be held Saturday, November 17. Seeds and tools are provided, and planting techniques will be explained. For additional information, contact the Riverside United Methodist Church at (708) 447-1760.
Tom Sisulak, the event’s organizer, is hoping to turn the 1,000 Tree Planting Project into the 10,000 Tree Planting Project by recruiting 10 other communities to undertake the same effort. If you would like to know more about how to organize this initiative in your area, contact Sisulak at (708) 447-3767.