Cover Story

Growing Kids & Trees: An Rx For NDD

Story by Marilyn Cox, Contributing Writer. Photos by Bill Sherrod, Editor.


Adam Downing helps Jiliana Roebuck clean up around a recently planted seedling.

Electric Cooperatives Support Statewide Environmental-Awareness Program for Youth

Planting a silky dogwood tree might be just the prescription for Virginia youngsters suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD).

NDD is a term coined by Richard Louv in his bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods. The term has gained traction describing today’s children who mistake dandelions for sunflowers or who don’t understand that food originates on a farm, not in the grocery store. Children today spend much of their time indoors playing video games instead of playing outside in the fresh air.

“They are engaging with screens. They are hardly engaging with people except through a screen. Our obesity is linked to this, our attention-deficit disorder is linked to this, there are all kinds of social ills that at least in part, or maybe in large part, are directly linked to kids not playing outside,” says Adam K. Downing, forestry and natural resources extension agent for the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service’s Northern District, headquartered in Madison.

But there’s a statewide program in Virginia that’s helping children get in touch with nature and alleviate NDD by planting trees. Since 2007, the “Growing Kids & Trees for Virginia’s Forests” program has distributed more than 15,000 seedlings each year to school children throughout Virginia.

Downing, who works with his counterparts throughout the state to coordinate the program each year, notes that some of the connections trees play in the world are lost on today’s youth. Often, when he asks school children if they’ve used anything from a tree that morning, only a few hands are raised.

They don’t realize that everyday items ranging from the kitchen table where they eat their breakfast to the cellulose in their toothpaste originated with a tree. The mission of the Growing Kids & Trees program is to change that, one child — and one tree — at a time.

Thousands of children across Virginia have participated in the Growing Kids & Trees program and have been touched by the magic of planting seedlings and getting dirt underneath their fingernails. The trees are planted everywhere from backyards to parks to school property, according to Downing.

Help from Electric Cooperatives

The program’s growth has created challenges, and Virginia’s customer-owned electric cooperatives this year pitched in to help continue and broaden awareness of the program. Virginia’s 13 electric-distribution cooperatives, through their statewide association, the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives, and Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, power provider to nine of those co-ops, provided support to assist in purchasing the tree seedlings for planting this year. The hardwood trees are supplied by the Department of Forestry’s Augusta Forestry Center in Crimora (see sidebar).

The seedlings are used across the state, equally among the four districts of the Virginia Cooperative Extension service — northern, central, southwest and southeast. This year, 22,500 trees of various species were planted by Virginia’s youth. “This is a lot more than we could plant last year because of the help from Virginia’s co-ops when costs increased,” Downing says. The Growing Kids & Trees program is just for planting hardwood trees. Because different trees are better suited for different areas of Virginia, the children plant different hardwood species across Virginia. In the northern district, the children are helping to plant green ash, silky dogwood and pin oak. In the central district, the species planted this year are river birch, bald cypress, pin oak and silky dogwood. In the southwest district, children are planting white oak, red maple, silky dogwood, red mulberry and chinkapin. In the east, the youngsters are planting kousa dogwood, silky dogwood, river birch, buttonbush, Japanese larch and pear. 

Collectively, the children seem to have a mighty green thumb, according to how well trees planted in the program are growing. The children are taught how to plant a tree, which may sound easy but can be an art in itself. “Everyone thinks they know how to plant a tree. It sounds very simple. The Simple Act of Planting a Tree — there is a book title by that name, right? But it is not so simple,” Downing notes. 

First, you have to make a hole that’s the right depth, and you have to plant the tree the proper distance from the other trees so it has room to reach its full potential. “The key is to get the roots in good contact with the soil, not too deep, not too high, and make sure the roots are pointing in the right direction, not bent like a ‘J’,” Downing says. If these things are not right, the tree may not grow well or at all.

Oftentimes, plastic tubes are placed around the hardwood seedlings to protect them from deer and drying winds. The tubes also help extend the growing season to give the tree a competitive advantage, Downing notes. “It’s basically an individual greenhouse for that tree,” he says.

The average seedling survival rate across the state is about 75 percent. At a tree planting last year to improve water quality, wildlife habitat and beauty at Hoover Ridge in Madison County, the survival rate was a whopping 90 percent. “It was phenomenal. Professional tree planters strive for 90 percent or better, so to have it with volunteers who are young people was amazing,” says Downing. He adds that perfect weather conditions and skill helped the planting’s success.

Radiant youth Kimberly Dillon, a 14-year-old seventh-grade student at Wetsel Middle School, helped plant trees at Hoover Ridge in Madison County and said it was a fun experience. “It was a good time to learn about trees. You learned different types of trees. We learned about types of dirt and different proper ways to plant the tree.”

For planting projects involving more than a few trees, the trees are watered simply by Mother Nature. “Fortunately, in this part of the world, we usually get adequate water,” Downing notes. “The biggest competitor of a woodland tree in the Eastern United States is not water, but light. Historically, we have  plenty of water.”

The motto for the tree planting is “right tree, right place.” The students are taught which trees are well suited for particular locations and which sites, such as underneath power lines, to avoid. Keith Forry, director of vegetation management services for Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, notes, “Anything that encourages our children to be more in touch with nature and to realize how trees are important to our environment is a great thing.” Rappa­han­nock Electric Cooperative is one of 13 electric cooperatives serving Virginia and provides electric service to over 155,000 connections in parts of 22 Virginia counties, including Madison.

The Seedling of an Idea

The program got started when Jeff Kirwan, now a retired Extension Specialist in the College of Natural Resources & Environment at Virginia Tech who worked with youth and nature, successfully applied for a grant to fund the Growing Kids & Trees idea. Downing helped Kirwan with the grant application. The grant’s intent was to help improve the Chesapeake Bay’s watershed by planting trees. “The Chesapeake Bay has significant water-quality issues,” Downing notes, “mostly due to nutrient runoff from agricultural land and developed areas like residential and commercial developments with lots of pavement and rooftops.” 

Land without the buffering ability of trees allows more water to run-off into streams and rivers, carrying soil, fertilizers and other materials into the waterways that eventually lead to the bay. Trees help prevent that run-off water, among other environmental benefits.

“The single best land cover for a watershed, in terms of water quality and quantity, is trees. A forested watershed absorbs water and acts like a sponge. It soaks that water up, and releases it slowly, also allowing more water into underground aquifers. This is important to every person who uses water ... I think that’s everyone.” Downing notes.

The benefits of the Growing Kids & Trees program are not only environmental, but social and even economic. Trees provide food and cover for wildlife, clean the air, promote increased water quality and enhance the landscape’s beauty. Children involved in the plantings are engaging with nature, soil, fresh air and talking to each other about their real-world experiences. And trees planted on the proper side of a house can provide energy-saving shade and windbreaks and even improve property values.

“It’s always good to plant trees,” Downing says.

“The electric cooperatives have traditionally been strong supporters of the cooperative extension service. Our roots are in rural areas. We have a very strong affinity for supporting their efforts for educating the people about the natural world and being good stewards of the environment,” says Richard Johnstone, executive vice president of the electric cooperative association.

“The program aligns particularly well with our mission of community support, which is central to the seven guiding cooperative principles,” Johnstone adds. “In particular, Growing Kids & Trees is a good manifestation of the fifth cooperative principle, relating to good communications, and the seventh principle, relating to concern for community.”

If you’d like to get involved in the Growing Kids & Trees program in Virginia, contact your local 4-H extension agent. For detailed information about the program, visit or contact your local extension forester: Adam Downing, at (540) 948-6881 (Northern District), Jason Fisher at (434) 476-7777 (Central District), Bill Worrell at (276) 889-8056 (Southwest District), or Neil Clark at (757) 635-2572.

For additional information, including a map showing which counties are in which districts, go to: index.html.  

10,000 Acres of Seedlings

Children participating in the statewide “Growing Kids & Trees for Virginia’s Forests” program have planted approximately 15,000 hardwood seedlings annually since the program’s inception in 2007. Where do all these trees come from?

The thousands of trees planted lovingly in Virginia soil by Virginia youngsters originate at a special place — the Virginia Department of Forestry’s Augusta Forestry Center in Crimora.

Josh McLaughlin, nursery forester at the center, notes that the nursery was started in 1967 and includes 189 acres of property, with 25-30 acres dedicated solely to tree production.

While the number-one produced tree at the center is Eastern white pine (with nearly a million sold annually), the nursery grows numerous species, from white dogwood, the state tree of Virginia, to holiday-season trees such as Norway spruce.

The facility also produces fruit and oak trees, such as common apple, persimmon, white oak and pin oak.

The extension agents involved in the Growing Kids & Trees for Virginia’s Forests program either drive to Crimora to pick up their tree seedlings or have them shipped directly to various parts of Virginia by UPS.

There’s work to do at the tree farm throughout the year — winter, summer, spring and fall. Jobs range across the spectrum and include activities such as planting, fertilizing, irrigation, weed suppression, acorn collection, and equipment maintenance. About 75 percent of the seed for the trees is planted in the fall.

The Augusta Forestry Center is 100 percent self-supporting. “We have to sell our trees to make a living,” McLaughlin notes. The nursery is staffed by three full-time workers, three part-time workers, six seasonal workers, about 25 contract labor workers, and inmate workers and volunteers who live at the nursery’s campground. “It’s the joy of doing something green. You are growing trees for a good reason. To me it’s enjoyable to know that everything we plant, we plant by seed and then we manage it. I never thought I had a green thumb until I came here and now it’s amazing, you hope and pray, and then when the seeds germinate it makes you feel good,” says McLaughlin, who has been at the nursery eight years.

To keep the trees from budding out during a mild winter, there’s a large cooler that is kept at 34-36 degrees Fahrenheit. The cooler can hold more than a million trees. A cooler-full of trees would cover at least 10,000 acres, McLaughlin calculates.   

For questions, additional information or to order seedlings, contact Augusta Forestry Center at (540) 363-7000. You can also learn more about the program and facilities, as well as order online at 



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