The 21st Century Parks work crew planting the native tree seedlings in the Floyds Fork bottomland off Stout Road was dwarfed by its surroundings; the flat, muddy 45-acre field that someday will again be forest; the towering white Sycamore trees at the edge of the river.
It’s a regeneration process that includes the planting of about 31,000 skinny, one-year-old seedlings; predominately oaks, walnuts, hickories, persimmons, cherry, hazelnuts and pecans, with others to follow.
It’s a process – as with so many with 21st Century Parks – that will bring Kentucky history full circle; the land being planted was once owned by Squire Boone, Daniel’s brother, through a 1,500-acre grant dating back to 1792.
Nearby is the historic “Stout House” – a restored stone dwelling dating back to the early 1800s that will be used as a park facility, the land around it as perhaps as a “Williamsburg” type Colonial garden.
It’s a process that began where it should – with the seeds of native trees gleaned from across Kentucky. Tim Sheehan, a forestry source branch manager for the Kentucky Division of Forestry, explained the acorns of the northern red oak were collected around Central Kentucky by the Forestry Club of the University of Kentucky. The white oak acorns came from both eastern and western Kentucky, including the Land Between the Lakes.
When the acorns begin to drop in large numbers leaf blowers are used to blow the debris off the top. Then a machine that’s a cross between a wheel mower and a golf ball picker gathers up the acorns, which are dumped onto a tarp. After a while the seeds are dumped in water; the bad ones float and the rest are collected for planting.
“We use inmates to collect the seeds,” Sheehan said. “We clean them and grade them and put them in long beds four feet wide and 500 feet long. We grow about 14,000 seedlings per bed.”
“And then when people like 21st Century Parks place an order, they tell us when they want them and we try to harvest them in time.”
Overall, he said, the state tree nurseries plant about 75,000 pounds of seed and are now growing between 3.5 million and 4 million seedlings a year – which is about half of the 8 million they were growing just 10 years ago. The cost to the planters is about 25 cents a tree.
“Actually,” he said, “tree plantings dropping off a little bit. It has something to do with the economy and it has something to do with (increased) corn production.”
The seedling plantings cross all sorts of state and federal lines. The funding is part of a $69,000 grant from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service involving environmental quality and wildlife habitat. The planning was done with the help of Lisa Armstrong, a senior forester in the Division of Forestry’s Bardstown office, who visited the site with several 21st Century Parks officials to check soil types, land history and drainage.
“It gives us a good idea of what to plant where,” she said.”For instance we had some concerns that white oak might grow slower so we put the swamp white oak and the red oak in separate blocks.”
In essence the plantings are all mapped out before the seedlings go in – a more finely tuned process than it might appear while watching the perhaps two-to-three foot seedlings go in the ground.
The planting device is a bright orange “Whitfield” tree planter that looks a little like a modified tobacco planter. Towed by a bright red Massey Ferguson tractor, the planter has a shank in the front that slices a two foot deep gash in the ground.
Two workers sitting on the planter feed the tiny trees into the gash; the ground closed in around the seedlings with two angled metal flanges at the rear of the planter. The seedling rows are eight feet apart – allowing space for mowing while they are young. Workers on foot will follow behind the planter to be sure all is well – and tamping down the dirt if it’s not.
“They can easily plant 3,000 to 4,000 trees a day,” said Sheehan, “and when you’ve planted several days in a row it’s not uncommon for a mechanical tree planter to get 10,000 trees in the ground in a day.”
But the planting is only the beginning of creating a new native forest in this Turkey Run section of the park, explained Sheehan. Given the rich bottomland he estimated many of the seedlings could be 15 to 20 feet tall, or taller, in five to 10 years.
But if the 45-acre field was left alone the more invasive species of sycamore and box elder would come in from the edges – and perhaps take over. So a thinning out program would be started in a few years to eliminate the invasives – and allow the natives to get a good, upright start.
“I think their endgame is a native forest,” said Sheehan. “And in order for people in Louisville to come out here and enjoy something…and they’re going to see it 50 or 60 years instead of a 150 years. So, I mean, it’s so worthwhile.”
Gary Rzepecki, 21st Century Parks natural areas manager, explained the Stout Road planting was just the beginning of reforestation along Floyds Fork – which could total 45,000 to 50,000 trees this year along the length of the park.
“The plan here,” he said, “is to take an area that was an agricultural area and turn it back into a forest, to recreate the riparian forest from down here all the way to Miles Lakes.”
Future plantings will include planting Sycamore, red maple, red oak, lindens, elms and pin oak around the circular Egg Lawn at Beckley Station, as well as perhaps black gums, white oak and a reborn American elm species along the nearby Promenade; a “Princeton” variety bred to be resistant to the Dutch Elm disease.
“We’re looking for the Promenade to have trees that have at least a 250-year life span,” he said.
Even further closing the loop, 21st Century Parks volunteers will gather on the Stout Road site on March 17th to plant the final 100 seedlings – with only 250 years to go.
About the Author
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system – all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill’s stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.