Omaha Old Market Native Arboretum: a wild welcome from Jack Phillips* and The Naturalist School
Long before Omaha was a city, Omaha was a People — the First Nations loved this land before Europe ever knew of it. And there were oaks — beloved for food and shelter and the ecological backbone of the Missouri River watershed. When early French and colonial explorers began the westward sweep, they found a land verdant in wildness and uniquely rich in biodiversity. This is the natural heritage of everyone who calls this place home.
The Naturalist School partners with the Omaha Downtown Improvement District to plant native trees of the Omaha region. Every autumn when the acorns and other seeds are ready and ripe we hike, climb, and slink the local ridges and ravines to collect the promise of future trees native and wild. And from these seeds our nursery partners grow the trees for our planting projects — including our ongoing work to establish a hardy and resilient urban canopy in Omaha’s Old Market. Volunteers from The Naturalist School plant these with care. We know the parents of many of these trees and some of our planters collected the very seeds from which they grew. We have planted over 100 trees in the Old Market and surrounding streets since our partnership began.
Not every native species can successfully navigate the challenges of urban life. Oaks have the toughness, flexibility, and evolutionary wisdom to thrive where other trees struggle. Cities across the nation have found this to be true. And among the oaks, our local bur oak is the wisest of them all. Known to the Omaha-Ponca as tashka-hi, it can handle drought, storms, pests and diseases, deicing salts and car-door dings with grace.
Tashka-hi is not the only street-smart oak. Chinkapin, black, white, and red oaks grow and thrive in the Old Market along with their native companions hackberry and Kentucky coffee-tree. As a stand-in for our struggling native elms we have planted a few disease-resistant American elms and hybrids. Of course other native hardwoods grow in our region, but we have chosen the hardiest and most adaptable to urban conditions to enliven the Old Market district.
The Real Cost of Planting Trees
Cities across the nation include urban trees in “green infrastructure” that is intended to lower carbon footprint, cool city streets, increase foot traffic, and create aesthetic appeal. In order for these benefits to be realized, most trees would need to grow and thrive for many decades and sadly, that is seldom the case. The nursery industry is heavily dependent on fossil fuels and the environmental cost of growing and planting trees is huge. And a typical commercially-produced tree has traveled hundreds of miles before it is planted. But we take a different approach.
The Naturalist School collects seed locally and others in our nursery co-op do the same. Our saplings are germinated and raised nearby as well, and are smaller than what is typically planted in urban projects. Our young trees begin to grow quickly, need only one summer of watering, and carry a relatively small carbon debt. And the total cost of planting is substantially lower than what city departments, developers, and property owners typically pay.
We have also been able to reduce construction costs while improving tree health and longevity. Our soil studies have revealed that Old Market soils are naturally fertile and rich beneath and around historic buildings and paving. This has allowed us to make use of established planting spaces with little amendment. In collaboration with Omaha Planning Department, we have created design standards for new construction where trees will be planted.
How We Care for Young Urban Trees and Beyond
We plant young, healthy trees that are ready for the challenges of urban life and hold the promise of a verdant future for residents, merchants, and visitors. But they need a little help from their friends. To a large extent this help comes in the form of non-interference and letting trees just be trees. Many of our Old Market tree sites lack mulch or contain only a thin layer. And it comes as a surprise to many that mulch can do more harm than good.
This is because the misapplication of mulch can actually increase weeds and make it harder for roots to get the water and air that they need. Weeds love mulch and readily germinate in thick mulch where conditions are moist; seeds are deposited in mulch on windy days even in urban areas. In fact, many weed seeds are already contained in mulch, especially when purchased in bulk. Proof of this is easily seen when newly-mulched sites quickly become overrun with unwelcome vegetation. This can be avoided by limiting mulch to no more than 1-2” deep, and to keep mulch at least 8” away from trunks so as not to encourage root problems.
We embrace non-chemical tree care. Herbicides — even those that are advertised as safe for trees — pose a serious threat to healthy tree growth. Trees respond to toxins much the same way as any plant, and herbicide drift and volatilization are often absorbed into the thin bark of young trees. It is always best to keep herbicides of any kind (even granular) far away from young trees. This goes for string-trimmers and other implements of destruction. The best and most effective method of weed control is simply to pull, hoe, or cut them before they get out of hand. This takes time and effort but is well worth the trouble. And a little patience!
The Naturalist School is most often to be found in our wild and native haunts sauntering silently, writing poetry, teaching workshops, or conducting biotic surveys for our conservation partners. We find ourselves far from human sounds and ambition in the prairies and woodlands we love. To our delight we also find a measure of wildness in the Old Market bustle among our native and familiar friends. We hope you will be delighted as well!
Photos by members of The Naturalist School: Chelsea Balzer, Robert Smith, Emily Hergenrader, and Brooklyn Larimore.
*Jack Phillips is a registered consulting arborist, nature writer, and principal of The Naturalist School. He is author of Soul of a Tree: Conversations on the Nature of Tree Care with Alex Shigo and The Bur Oak Manifesto: Seeking Nature and Planting Trees in the Great Plains and editor of Treasures of the Great Plains: an Ecological Perspective with Paul Johnsgard and Tom Lynch. Jack’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals, and he has given readings, workshops, and retreats throughout the continent.