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Restoring the land, one tree at a time

When fourth-graders Max Morgan and Jordan Eshraghi first heard about their class joining in on a tree-planting project, the two friends were excited. They prepared themselves by seeking out more information. 

“We watched a YouTube video about a guy who planted over 2 million trees to help the environment,” said Max.

“It was really inspiring,” added Jordan. 

Royce Wildfong (left) and Quinton McLemore make sure they dig their hole deep enough for the tree they are planting

Max, Jordan and their schoolmates from 15 classes at Appleview Elementary School are helping to turn a nearby area of wooded land into an outdoor learning space. Each class has signed up for an hour of work at the site, a 2.5-acre parcel between Sparta Middle School and Appleview Elementary. 

“Way back when the Native Americans lived here, there were birch, oak and white pine trees, but when farmers moved in and needed land to grow crops, many plants native to the area were taken out,” said retired Sparta elementary teacher Sue Blackall, explaining the reason for the planting project.

After the school purchased the property, woodlands started to regrow, but many native plants were still missing. This has caused difficulty for area wildlife, she said. 

Now, students have been tasked with helping restore the land to its more natural habitat. The project for Appleview’s third- through fifth-graders is twofold: to plant small, native trees and shrubs, and then place wood chips around all the recently planted trees to help protect them as they mature.

“Not only is this a great opportunity for outside learning, during a time when we want to maximize those opportunities, it is providing an area for future years of learning as well.” 

— Appleview Elementary Principal Mike Birely

After a quick lesson in planting procedures, students went to work, digging holes, clearing out small rocks, adding rich soil to the clay and carefully planting the native trees. Each tree was then packed with soil, watered and surrounded with wood chips for protection. After each pair of students planted a tree, they helped distribute wood chips to other areas.

As they worked, the students chatted about environmental needs, doing their part and what they most enjoyed about the project.

“I really like smoothing the soil and wood chips around the trees, making them look really nice,” said student Aurelia Howell.

“I’m taking this seriously; it’s important,” another student told his planting partner. 

Native trees stand ready for students to plant

And, after being told she would ruin her painted nails, one student said, “It’s OK. I don’t mind as long as we get this done.”

This student planting project is one of several Blackall has led at the site. Her primary goal is to restore the land with native plants and provide walking trails for educational exploration. She has enlisted the help of community volunteers, including local Boy Scout Troop 704, to plant large native white pines, birches and oaks to supplement the smaller ones planted by students. 

According to Blackall, the planting projects have been accomplished at no cost to Sparta Area Schools. Grants from the Sparta Education Foundation and DTE Energy/MDNR Forestry provided the large trees and grants from Groundswell and Grand Valley State University provided 120 native shrubs. 

Blackall is also in the process of writing more grant applications to obtain seedlings for a spring planting.

Appleview Principal Mike Birely is excited to see his students take ownership in both the land and the project.

“Not only is this a great opportunity for outside learning, during a time when we want to maximize those opportunities, it is providing an area for future years of learning as well,” he said.

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst
Janice Holst is a reporter covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio or email Janice.

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