A lesson in pruning

Students get hands-on arborist experience while caring for Mizzou’s mighty Legacy Oaks.

  • a group of students with faculty, staff and alumni at the tree farm
    Students get a hands-on lesson in tree pruning from MU faculty, staff and alumni.

April 6, 2022

On a recent March morning, students from Hank Stelzer’s urban forestry class at the University of Missouri played a small role in the future and legacy of the MU campus landscape. At the same time, they got an introduction to pruning, courtesy of the Mizzou Botanic Garden (MUBG).

Stelzer and his students joined MUBG team and board members to prune 70 white oak saplings that have been growing at MU’s South Farm for the past three years.

Not just any saplings, these eventual mighty oaks are the Legacy Oaks of the Francis Quadrangle. The young trees have been biding their time and putting on a little size — awaiting their destiny to replace the declining pin oaks that were planted in the late 1940s on the Quad.

With Stelzer and Chris Starbuck as guides, forestry students got a hands-on lesson in “front end” sapling pruning. Starbuck is a professor emeritus of plant sciences and serves on the MUBG board.

“We did a lot of leader correction — where the tree starts to stem off instead of having one leader growing straight up,” said junior forestry major, Josh Yantis. “We also pruned to manage the rest of the growth. Being a big tree, oaks stretch out their arms, so we pruned them to grow more up, and then out — in a vase shape. It was a very beneficial lesson.”

Stelzer said development of a central stem and strong scaffolding, or structure, during the early lives of the oaks is a management practice that will make a real difference in their future stability and appearance. When possible, Stelzer tries to take students outside to see real-life examples of what they’ve learned from a book or lecture. Later this month, Stelzer will take his students to St. Louis to visit government agencies, non-profits and professional arborists.

“We learned so much by pruning the trees ourselves,” Yantis said. “I hadn’t ever learned how to take care of an individual tree, how to prevent double leaders and what you can do keep trees healthy in an urban setting. If I can get my hands on something, that’s worth more than three textbooks to me.”

Yantis, who hails from the Cape Girardeau area, is fond of Missouri and said he’d like nothing more than to build a career here. He wants to take what he’s learned at Mizzou and apply it to a job in Missouri forestry management.

The Legacy Oaks of Francis Quadrangle

In 2018, MU Landscape Services and MUBG convened a group to advise the campus on procedural logistics of removing and replacing the failing pin oaks on the Quad. The group advised planting white oak species, which are better adapted to Missouri’s growing conditions. And white oaks can live for 200-plus years compared to the 70-year life expectancy of pin oaks.

The Legacy Oaks project is supported by the generosity of donors invested in the beautification of our campus. To show your support for the Legacy Oaks of the Francis Quadrangle, please make your gift today.


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