Plan a family-volunteering session planting trees and shrubs with Friends of Trees.

Friends of Trees has been around for 30 years, and in that time volunteers have planted more than 800,000 trees and native shrubs in Oregon and Vancouver. They may be best known for planting trees in neighborhood sidewalk strips, but they also do plantings in green spaces to restore natural areas.   

My kids are hard-core animal-lovers, and so they were all about restoring natural areas. Which led us to Columbia Children’s Arboretum on a cold and rainy Saturday morning in January, ready to make things a little cheerier for the resident beavers and great horned owl. 

When I say cold and rainy, I mean it. I was nervous the kids were going to go into full-on complaining mode. But 30 years of volunteer coordination means that this organization knew just how to make chilly kids happy. Doughnuts. The answer is doughnuts. (Isn’t it always doughnuts?) And a little hot chocolate didn’t hurt either.  

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After sugaring up, it was time to get suited up. We had come prepared in rain boots and raincoats, and Friends of Trees supplied work gloves and shovels. Both gloves and shovels came in all sizes, fitting everyone from my 5-year-old to my husband and me, whose ages I shall politely decline to reveal.  

Properly equipped, we were ready to learn about our project! There were about 100 people at this event, and so we were split off into multiple smaller groups, each planting different native species. Our group got to plant low Oregon grapes and salal. We learned a bit about these plants, and then dug into how to plant them. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) We were shown how deep to dig the hole, how to tap the plants in, how far they should be spaced, and how to mulch. No watering cans were necessary on this outing! 

After the demo, we were so ready to get going because, yay, planting! And also, wow, did I mention it was cold? 

Although the kids were mildly disappointed they didn’t get to plant a tree this time, planting the smaller shrubs ended up working out great, especially given my kids’ ages (5, 7 and 9). Not as much muscle power or time was required to get these plants in the ground — we only needed to dig out a few shovelfuls of dirt before the plants would easily fit. This was highly satisfying for my results-driven children, with our family of five planting about 35 plants in just a few hours.  

The event began at 9 am and went until 1 pm, but we bowed out at 11:30 am to keep the event fun and engaging for everyone. My oldest would have kept going until the end, but the effects of the doughnut had worn off for my youngest.  

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If you have been thinking of volunteering, but are unsure about doing it with kids, Friends of Trees is a great place to start. After the initial introduction and demo, you are largely left on your own. That means you don’t need to feel bad if your kid needs to take a break. Or eat a doughnut. Or leave early. Or see who can get the muddiest boots. And everyone was incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic to have little hands to help out. We were stopped several times to be shown an especially fat worm, or to look at a piece of beaver chew. Also, it was really fun, even with the cold. There is something very satisfying about the process of planting, and it felt even more satisfying knowing that our efforts would be seen by thousands of people for years to come. Including us — we plan to come back this summer to see how our little guys are faring.

Know before you go: Friends of Trees’ planting season runs from October through April. Browse their volunteer schedule at: friendsoftrees.org/volunteer. Children of all ages are welcome, but ages 6 and up are recommended for green-space planting, and 10 and up for neighborhood trees. Children under 15 must have a guardian present.

Ali Wilkinson
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