University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
Arbor Day is a day recognized in each state as a public celebration of spring and of trees. Church groups, schools, civic groups, towns, cities, and private individuals commemorate this day by planting trees to beautify their yards and their communities. The date varies by state, depending on the climate and the best time for planting trees.  Arbor Day is the first Friday in May in Vermont, the last Friday in April in many states, and even earlier in southern and some western states.

Historians claim the tradition of planting trees to beautify an area actually began in 1630 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was in Boston, according to historical records, that the first shade tree planting for the "public good" occurred in the New World.

Arbor Day had its origin in the Great Plains in the 1800’s. Settlers, arriving from the East, found vast open stretches of land but no trees.  So they began planting trees on their farms and near their homes for shade, beauty, and to act as windbreaks and curb soil erosion.

Julius Sterling Morton, a New York native who later moved to Michigan and finally settled in Nebraska, is credited as the father of Arbor Day. An early conservationist and President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of Agriculture, he understood the importance of planting trees to prevent the loss of valuable topsoil. In 1872, as a member of the Nebraska Board of Agriculture, he pushed for a statewide day to celebrate tree planting. Being the editor of Nebraska’s finest newspaper helped him to further his cause and that of trees.

Arbor Day was proclaimed an official holiday that year in Nebraska, and on one single day--April 10--more than one million trees were planted in the state, prompted in part by the offer of prizes to whomever planted the most trees. Nebraska soon became known as the "Tree Planters State." Other states passed legislation during the 1870’s to observe an Arbor Day.  In 1882, this observance began in schools nationwide.

Trees provide more benefits than just shade and aesthetic beauty. According to the Arbor Day Foundation—the organization that now coordinates and promotes efforts related to this day (, trees “clean air and water, slow climate change, ease poverty and hunger, prevent species loss, and feed the human soul.”  Specifically, trees:
--help cleanse and purify the air by absorbing carbon dioxide, catching dust particles and other pollutants, and giving off oxygen
--moderate building temperatures and conserve energy by insulating homes and buildings and providing windbreaks
--reduce water run-off and soil erosion during storms
--provide food for humans and animals from fruit trees
--provide habitat for insects—the main food of birds
--screen out "eyesores" in the landscape and frame good views in addition to creating privacy
--increase the resale value of homes

When planting trees for Arbor Day—spring is one of the best times for planting trees-- or any other time, ensure their good health by following proper planting procedures, proper follow-up care after planting, and proper tree maintenance.

This means selecting a tree species that grows well in your area, and providing the right soil for healthy growth. Before you plant, it's a good idea to check the soil pH and fertility with soil tests.

Plant at the proper depth-- the depth at which the “root flare” is at the soil surface.  This is the area at the trunk base that flares outward.  Often this may be buried beneath soil in a root ball or pot, so make sure to brush any top soil away until it is visible.

Wrap and stake the newly planted tree if necessary—if it will be exposed to frequent and heavy winds. Mulch around the base of the tree, but not up against the trunk.  Making a “volcano” of mulch around the tree base, as is commonly seen, may kill that bark and eventually the tree over time. Following planting, water frequently and heavily once a week.

Good tree care also entails pruning when necessary, and proper fertilization. You should follow a sound maintenance program to treat pests and diseases. When horticultural chemicals are needed, always follow label instructions carefully to avoid misuse. For help in the selection and care of trees, consult the Arbor Day website, or professionals at your local nursery.

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