Three-year-old Cayden Thrift, miniature shovel in hand, slowly and methodically piled dirt around a seedling as his mother watched.
“It’s not every day he gets to come out here and dig in the dirt and learn how to use a shovel and make a contribution at the same time,” said his mother, Heather Newton.
About 400 seedlings — including live oak, magnolia and cypress — sat waiting to be planted at the Burden Museum and Gardens’ Arbor Day event on Saturday morning. Dozens of parents and Baton Rouge residents streamed in, grabbed shovels and hauled away their chosen tree away to plant it in a hole in the forest.
“We’re trying to create an environment in which kids can experience a forest in a way they never would,” said Scott Courtright, chairman of Arbor Day for the Burden Center.
The event helps restore damage left in Hurricane Gustav’s wake. About 25 percent of the center’s canopy was destroyed in the storm, and the path of devastation through the forest was so great that it resembled a tornado touching down, said landscape manager Katie Guitreau. In the aftermath, invasive and fast-growing species began to thrive, diverting resources from trees that are native to the southeastern United States, while also clogging up the forest and making it more difficult to navigate, Courtright said.
But in the six years since their annual events began, volunteers have planted about 2,000 trees, said Michelle Fuller, a Burden Museum spokeswoman. The staff has worked to clear out the invasive trees and replant native species in their wake.
“We’re rebuilding the forest to the way that it was,” Guitreau said. “It’s a really difficult task.”
To prepare for the event, volunteers dug hundreds of holes and recorded each hole’s coordinates so planters could receive a card with the spot of their newly planted seedling and return to it years, or even decades, later, Fuller said.
The seedlings, once planted, have a lifespan of 60 to 100 years, Courtright said. But planters had to make sure they didn’t bury the seedling in too much mulch.
If they covered the root collar, a small section toward the seedling’s base, the future tree’s health can worsen drastically with time and start rotting from fungus and parasites, said Matthew Herron, a co-founder of the Capital Area Native Plant Society and a volunteer at Arbor Day.
The event attracted longtime Arbor Day-goers as well as newcomers.
Camille Conaway has been bringing her children — Olivia, 5, and Sam, 2 — to Arbor Day since they were born. In their first year, Olivia came in a stroller.
“My son would rather sign up for digging the holes, but he’s also happy to push the dirt back on,” Conaway said with a laugh.
Cristina Lacroix brought her 4-year-old twins, Maya and Stella, because her family already composts trash and grows vegetables, and planting a seedling seemed like an easy choice.
“We’re trying to teach them that there’s more besides TV and video games,” Lacroix said.
Some were planting trees for more somber reasons.
Patti Granzin lost her father Bob Granzin, 87, exactly three years ago from Saturday. He cared deeply about nature, so she came to plant a tree in his honor, along with her sister Susan Stevens and Stevens’ 7-year-old grandson, Carter.
“To be out in nature, especially if your father was a huge part of that … it’s meaningful forever,” Patti Granzin said.
Follow Daniel Bethencourt on Twitter: @_dbethencourt.