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by Caroline Downs

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Nothing like a tree for company . . .

Posted 5/29/12 (Tue)

Most children of the prairie appreciate a good tree or two.

I saw that growing up, with one set of grandparents in southeastern South Dakota having the world’s best-ever tree, a maple, planted next to their garage. During my childhood, the tree shaded the driveway and provided those little “propeller” seeds for entertainment. When my older cousin visited from Reno one year, he built a platform tree house on the sturdy branches and nailed three small boards to the trunk for access.

Then, he hid a stash of cinnamon-flavored toothpicks and a deck of Peanuts playing cards up there, in the hollow under the platform.

That was my first experience with a tree house, my first taste of cinnamon toothpicks and the first time my little brother couldn’t tag along behind me.

My other set of grandparents dedicated themselves to trees once they moved to a farmstead outside their town in south central South Dakota, just above the Nebraska border. Grandpa left the alfalfa pasture alone, but he surrounded the acreage with three or four rows of trees to grow into a protective border. He planted a dozen or so rows of trees and shrubs in a field north of the house and experimented with whatever varieties of cherry, plum and pear trees the soil conservation service suggested at the time, which made for some great jellies and syrups on Grandma’s breakfast table.

The two of them adored evergreens and had plenty around the place, including two small spruce trees that spread their branches across the yard as time went on. Grandma also had a special quaking aspen that grew up to shade the south door to the house and a cottonwood on the north side, framed by the living room picture window so she could watch the birds that landed in its branches each season.

When my parents moved our family to Gillette, Wyoming, one of the first things we did after buying a house was to start planting real trees, and hauling water to them, to grow up over the sagebrush and prairie grasses of our lot. Mom posed us by the ponderosa pine in the front yard for pictures at the beginnings of most school years.

Living here on our little farmstead, I’ve blessed Andy Christiansen many, many times for the trees he planted. Those elms, box elders, ash, spruce and pines, along with carraganas and lilacs, have turned the yard into our private park and offered tremendous protection from the weather.

Of course, we wanted to add to the collection. Some trees have died and others have blown down, but we like our forest and want to keep it growing.

Which means we expanded, last week, with three rows of seedlings.

Well, technically they were planted for us, two years after we started discussions with staff at the NRCS office about where we could plant trees and what species we could and should plant. We finally settled on buffalo berry, ponderosa pine and buckeyes--something new suggested for this zone that my husband enjoys from his childhood in Ohio--and then scheduled the planting for last spring, only to watch those plans wash away with the rain.

But last week, the trees arrived. Three new rows on the west side of our existing tree row where elms are declining.

Planting trees is all about hope, really. Right now, I walk out there and see two lines of leafless sticks in the ground, with a line of fragile green needles poked in the ground down the middle.

The pines look like a good wind will tumble them toward the horizon. I have to focus hard to see the buffalo berries. The buckeyes appear the most substantial with the promise of leaf buds, although I wonder how tempted the does and fawns will be as they wander toward our slough at night.

That’s okay. I will weed these and plant grass as recommended and haul water to them if drought threatens and mow between the rows when I need to. I may even convert some of my trusty chicken wire to protective cages to thwart the deer and bunnies.

Mostly I will cheer them on, watching for buds to open and branches to grow. There’s nothing like a tree for company, and now I have a few dozen for a happy crowd.

No tree house in the plans yet, but you never know what might develop.