Wanted: a cheap tree that can save the world

WEYBURN, Sask. – Victor Mariga is shivering in the Saskatchewan rain, a hood pulled over his head and his hands thrust deep into the front of his jacket.

Mariga of Kenya and other interns from France, Spain and Canada were at the site hoping to find ways to make trees grow faster and at less cost. It was one of 14 projects underway at Health, Education and Livelihood Project (HELP) International’s Centre for Ecology Research last summer.

At home, Mariga works for a nongovernmental organization in zero waste management and forestry, but here he is looking for what he and HELP’s chief executive officer Rodney Sidloski call the two-penny tree.

“Africa needs about a billion trees a year,” Mariga said. “Large tracts of forested land have been destroyed.”

But a tree in Kenya costs about 50 cents, plus the cost of labour to plant it.

Catherine Chania, who usually works as a registered nurse at the largest hospital in Kenya, said there has been a dramatic loss of forested land in her country over the last 30 years.

“The reduction of forest cover has been from 80 percent to two percent,” she said.

That is far less than the global recommendation of 10 percent forest cover.

Kenyans need trees for firewood and timber, and to keep watersheds healthy. Sidloski said Kenya has become one of the top five most eroded places on the planet.

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Trees grow quickly in the African climate. A eucalyptus can grow from seed to 23 metres tall and two metres in diameter in 15 years, but it has to be affordable, he said.

Mariga is looking after several experiments in Weyburn, including cloning, the effect of plastic mulch on tree survival and the use of living mulch.

The attempt to clone a tree involves burying a part of a budding branch still attached to an existing tree.

“It might develop roots and then we could cut it and transplant it,” he said.

He has also attached mud packs to some branches, wrapping the soil around buds with recycled transparent plastic. Once roots are seen, the branch could be cut and planted.

“We don’t know how long it will take,” Mariga said, adding this type of work is already done in Kenya but might not be applicable in Canada.

Plastic mulch has been in use for a while, but HELP’s project examines single and double layer mulching, as well as the use of grain bag plastic as a way to recycle.

Earlier, HELP interns placed 55,000 plastic mulch pads around tree seedlings in the Weyburn and Storthoaks areas. The pads made of used grain bags were placed around each seedling and then commercial plastic was placed over top.

These seedlings were compared with others that received just the regular single layer of plastic.

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Sidloski said the results were visually dramatic, particularly along a stretch of land near Weyburn Inland Terminal.

“The single mulched trees had four times the number of weeds as the double plastic,” he said.

But the living mulch research is one that Sidloski finds the most exciting.

This work involves planting trees from plugs that contain a seedling and creeping red fescue. The idea is that the fescue covers the soil immediately around the tree, preventing evaporation and stopping weeds from growing too closely, Mariga said.

Sidloski calls the fescue a “preferred” weed. It grows to about 30 centimetres and then falls over.

That also avoids the use of plastic mulch.

“We think it will be helpful for Africa,” Mariga said.

Some of the seedlings have been planted with smooth brome instead of the fescue.

“We think it will not allow the tree to grow,” he said. “We will look at how fast it will destroy the tree compared to how long the fescue prevents weeds from growing.”

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