OTTUMWA — Several students around the Ottumwa district got to spend some extra time outside Friday while working to beautify school grounds.

It didn’t hurt that the day had sunny skies and mild temperatures.

Trees Forever planting at James

Fifth-graders at James Elementary fill in dirt around the tree they were planting on school grounds Friday. Teacher Julie Schuck said the school sits on 40 acres of wooded land, and the seven new trees would add to the beauty of the grounds.

Kim Hellige, director of community programs, and maintenance workers from the district started their day at Liberty Elementary before moving on to Douma, James and Ottumwa High School later in the day to plant a variety of trees through the Trees Forever program.

Hellige said the district applied for the grant in the spring through the Branching Out program of Alliant Energy. She said Ottumwa has participated in the program every year for about 15 years, where the district is awarded money to purchase trees. Friday was the day for planting, with five to seven trees — totaling 25 — planted at each location.

The locations were selected based on district needs, she said. They look at where the need for some plant life is as well as looking to see if any trees are dying. “We also want to make sure trees are in places that provide energy efficiency” because it is an Alliant program, she said.

Trees Forever then provides a list of tree varieties the district can select. This year, there were tulip trees, red oak, serviceberry, hackberry and honeylocust trees. Hellige said they try to select a variety of species so something doesn’t wipe out all the plant life, similar to want the emerald ash borer did across Iowa in recent years.

By late morning Friday, Hellige and the maintenance crew had made their way to James Elementary, where she helped instruct fifth-graders on proper planting of the trees.

“The first, most important thing is you don’t want to plant it too deep,” she told the students. The first step in the process is to find the taproot and make sure it’s level with the ground. “If you plant this too deep, the tree will die for sure.”

Once that step was completed, she showed the students another important factor: making sure the roots can reach out like arms rather than going around in circles.

Once the tree was placed in the pre-dug hole, Hellige and the students worked to make sure the tree was straight and then began to fill the hole with dirt, ensuring there were no air pockets. They then covered it with mulch.

“You guys are responsible for these trees,” she said, advising the students to feed them weekly with a bucket of water until there’s a hard frost.

“This is a big deal for these kids,” said fifth-grade teacher Julie Schuck. “A lot of them have never had the chance to plant a tree.”

Student Marcus Turrado, however, said he’d planted two trees before Friday. He said the most interesting part was scraping the dirt away from the tree to find the taproot. It’s something he said he would definitely do again and is looking forward to caring for the trees. “This was actually really fun.”

Schuck said the students were really excited when Principal Jay Green announced over the intercom that morning that the fifth-graders would be planting the trees. And, he assisted the students in planting the trees.

“Everything’s so limited on activities right now. This is our first event as a fifth-grade class beyond school walls,” she said, with their science camp and DARE pizza and bowling party being canceled due to COVID-19.

“It’s a great activity, and the students always enjoy being involved,” Hellige said.

— Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

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Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's features and magazine editor, leading production of the award-winning "Ottumwa Life" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.

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