Insurgent Oaks


I’m starting an insurrection.

If you live in an area that was once native oak woodland, join me. I’m talking to you, Oakland, Oak Hills, Oak View, Shady Oaks, Oak Ridge, Royal Oaks, Oak Park, Oakmont – all of you who live where communities and streets and shopping malls have names that include the word “oak,” but actual oak trees are as rare as the varied thrush, I’m talking to you.

Oak woodlands have been under attack for too long. One massacre after another is carried out in the name of Progress and Economic Development or Convenient Shopping. The army of Progress is relentless, using an arsenal of heavy machinery and chain saws to butcher woodland, while the only way oaks can fight back is by dropping acorns.

They need our help.

We can’t wage an all-out campaign to dig up suburbia and city-scapes, so instead we’ll need to advance by occupying one tiny spot of land at a time: a front yard here, a backyard there, that little scrap of no-man’s land at the end of the next street over.

In their natural state, oak woodlands provide food and shelter for over two hundred and fifty species of animals and insects. Maybe our re-landscaping efforts won’t lure black bears and white-tailed deer into our yards to browse on acorns, but if enough people join the insurrection, we can create urban forests that cool our neighborhoods, help clean the air, and provide food for some types of birds struggling to avoid extinction. (According to the Audubon Society, one-half of North American bird species are now in danger from habitat loss and climate change. They need our help.)

Even if you aren’t worried about birds, you should consider what this insurrection can do for you.

A yard shaded by large oaks can reduce a house’s air conditioning needs by thirty percent, and increase property value by thousands of dollars. One tree can supply the oxygen used by two people daily, and reduce the amount of particulates soiling the air. And native oaks fit naturally into drought-resistant landscaping, since they evolved to survive California’s arid summers without irrigation. All they need is winter rainfall. The recent dry winters and record high summer temperatures, however, have put them under stress, making summer soakings necessary in some cases.

A forest of any kind cannot be grown in one year. That means we must rebel against near-sighted ideals of what constitutes “curb appeal.” If you get any flak, tell your homeowners’ association to wise up. We aren’t competing for a “Best Manicured Landscape” award, or trying to grow pictures for magazine covers. We’re fighting climate change and species extinctions. If you’re afraid what your neighbors will think, post a sign like mine: “Insurgent Oaks, Chapter One.”

And throw away those ads for artificial turf. It’s a bad joke. Plastic grass was invented to perpetuate the charade that we all live in rain-soaked English countryside, and is worse than the kind of grass that needs water, having no carbon uptake, no oxygen production, and no decomposition to provide soil nutrients. Artificial grass feeds nothing, and is probably made out of fossil fuels.

In preparing to carry out your part of the insurrection, you might want to consult a native plant website or nursery so you can find out about techniques like “sheet mulching” to get rid of lawns without a lot of digging. You might ask your community college to offer on-line classes on converting sterile lawn-scape into vibrant oak woodland.

Personally, I’m trying the quickest way first. If that doesn’t work, the correct way can come later.

I have access to oak trees, so this fall I collected bins of dropped acorns and stored them in the garage out in the sun. Now that storms are bringing down the leaves, I’m dumping leaves by the cartload on the lawn out front. People probably think it looks awful.  I don’t care, because I can envision what that yard will look like in fifteen years, thirty years, fifty years.

Starting this project by cutting out sod that has been infested with Bermuda grass for decades would be labor-intensive futility. Bermuda growing beyond the lawn’s boundary would quickly invade any fill-dirt brought in. So I’m leaving the summer-parched grass, butch-cut, where it is, optimistic that my drifts of leaves will smother out much of it, adding nutrients to the soil in the process. If the grass is kept short, never watered in the summer, and covered with new drifts of leaves every fall, it should eventually become a vestigial presence that can be managed with minimal labor.

Soon, I’ll scatter acorns where oak trees would be welcome, then kick leaves around to give them a light cover. Winter storms should take care of the watering, but if the leaves start looking crispy, I’ll haul out the garden hose. By spring, I could have mulch drifts filled with treasure – sprouting acorns.

Acorns sprouting in good spots can be left in place and marked with tree guards – gallon jugs or large cans with top and bottom cut out. A sapling that sprouts under power lines can be left to grow for years before it needs to be pruned down. In the meantime, that poorly-placed tree will provide leaf mulch, shade, and acorns. Excess sprouting acorns can be lifted into mulch-filled containers (tall to promote deep root growth), that are grouped in a shady area where it’s easy to water them.

In natural settings, saplings grow in the shade of mature oaks. They need to develop deep roots before they can withstand pitiless summer sun on their own. Therefore, seedlings in sunny yards should be protected with manufactured filtered shade. You might find more aesthetically-pleasing, inexpensive options, but for now I’m using tipped-over plastic lawn chairs, a picnic table, and propped-up pieces of painted plywood – whatever works without creating a fire hazard.

If the drifts of leaves get too dry before they turn into mulch, they may need to be bagged or covered with tarps during summer to reduce fire danger. Last summer, I had ten bags of leaves crowded together under a tupelo tree during the heat waves. The bags kept the root zone cool and moist. When the rains started, I spread the leaves back on the ground so they can decompose.

A caveat: don’t use eucalyptus leaves in the planting drifts. Eucalypts produce tannins that hinder the growth of other plants, to reduce  competition for water. I use sloughed-off eucalyptus bark to mulch areas where I don’t want anything to grow.

Later, the container seedlings can be given to members of an Insurgent Oaks Collective, or smuggled onto no-man’s land. Protected by tree-guards, and watered judiciously through the first few summers, those seedlings can turn a throw-away scrap of land into a life-saving rest-stop for migrating birds. (It helps if you also maintain a clean water source nearby – in a place that has nowhere for cats to hide.)

Other than gloves, rakes, garden carts and containers, this insurgency doesn’t need weapons. No chain saws or axes, shovels or earthmovers are allowed. Don’t remove an established tree of any species, unless it’s yours and you have a very good reason for doing so (like disease, invasive status, or safety concerns.) We have to preserve all the trees we can, because right now this planet needs all the shade it can get.

If you can’t find acorns nearby, maybe you can use social media to find a supply, or even organize an Insurgent Oaks battalion. Someone out there has acorns to share with their neighbors. Someone else has a surfeit of fallen leaves, or can haul compost, or knows a scrap of land that would make a good rest stop for migratory birds.

Don’t gather masses of acorns from parks. That could strip parks of their next generation of oaks. However, if you know of an oak woodland slated for massacre, someone should save those acorns. Please note: I am not advocating that people trespass on private property. I’m just saying every acorn dropped deserves the chance to become food for wildlife, or a mighty oak tree.

Don’t bring in oak leaves (or oak firewood) from distant areas. That could spread diseases and beetles that kill off established trees. And don’t try to dig up saplings. The process is likely to kill them. It’s much easier to work with acorns sprouting in leaf mulch, anyway.

Although strong trees should be able to survive on just the rain that falls during a winter of normal weather, seedlings and saplings that haven’t yet developed deep roots need help to get through dry stretches, especially during the triple-digit temperatures of summer. Water deeply, but infrequently. Soil that’s kept moist during warm weather promotes the growth of fungus that attacks oak roots. It can kill mature trees.

Keep an eye on all the trees during the summer, however, from the tiniest saplings to the biggest trees. If you notice crown leaves yellowing and dropping in mid-summer, that tree is suffering from drought. It needs a generous, four-day deep soak right now. The yellowed leaves will drop, but a new growth of foliage fills in. Don’t water that tree again until cold weather. During the winter, make sure trees get deep-soaked several times. If there isn’t enough rain, use the hose.

For decades, short-sighted landscaping practices have been subverting the eco-system services that native oak woodlands provide to us and other species, shortchanging us all. Let’s take back the land for the oaks, one drought-dead lawn at a time.

(First draft posted at on Aug. 19, 2015)

About Deanne E. Gwinn

Writer: screenplays, fiction, poetry
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