Saskatchewan's Environmental Champions

Tree Planters: Past and Present

Where did the initiative to plant all the trees in Saskatchewan's cities and towns come from?

In Saskatoon, one individual stood out, Wyndham Winkler Ashley. Ashley moved to Saskatoon in 1907 and became a charter member of the Saskatoon Parks Board in 1912. During the next 45 years of uninterrupted service on the Board he championed trees. He supervised the planting of 1500 spruce in President Murray Park and is credited for most of the stately American elms growing on Saskatchewan Crescent where he lived. He personally collected seeds of these trees, along with maple and butternut, and sent them around the province to anyone requesting them through a notice that he placed in The Western Producer. He estimated that he sent out about 2000 packages of seeds each year for 12 years and nearly 4000 in 1940!

Ashley is also credited with persuading the Dominion Forest Nursery Stations at Indian Head and Sutherland to start growing American elm seedlings for free distribution. He was also active in the Saskatoon and Saskatchewan Horticultural Societies, serving as president of both. In 1959 he was the recipient of the second national award for outstanding work in parks and recreation; the first award went to Ottawa's National Capital Commission. W.W. Ashley Park on Taylor Street in Saskatoon is named after him.

Two other Saskatonians who have parks named after them were also instrumental in promoting trees and parks in Saskatoon. A.H. Browne became Parks Superintendent in 1909 and worked for the city for 44 years. He and Harold Tatler, a member of the Parks Board for many years, are credited with developing Saskatoon's many centre boulevards and setting aside adequate park areas.

In the vast, open prairies, settlers planted trees not only for protection from wind and drifting snow but also to approximate European concepts of beauty and the element of psychological security. An underlying mission of settlement was the creation of a new Eden in a new land.

In Regina, where natural trees were rare, tree planting was also a major goal of early settlers. The Regina Ladies' Aid founded Saskatchewan's first local horticultural society in 1896. A larger regional body, the Assiniboia Horticultural Society, soon followed it. From these beginnings, nearly 50 such societies were in operation across the prairies by 1930. When Regina was selected as the seat of the provincial legislature, tree-lined boulevards and large parks were the order of the day. Between 1908 and 1912, under the direction of the provincial gardener George Watt, more than 100,000 trees and shrubs were transplanted from nurseries in Europe and North America. For more details see Wascana Centre Authority. Another significant promoter of tree planting in Regina was J.E. Park, provincial landscape gardener for many years.

Dan Bruinooge has been credited with making Weyburn an "oasis in the middle of the prairie." He worked in both greenhouse and nursery settings before becoming Parks Planner for the city. He developed numerous neighbourhood parks and initiated and carried out much of the planning and development of the Tatagwa Parkway system that runs through the city along the Souris River. Many other such local champions are no doubt documented in local history books.

Farm shelterbelts have had many champions. One, Peter Hugh Kennedy of Conquest, has been given the title "father of field shelterbelts." In 1922, he planted shelterbelts on three sides of his home section of land and became convinced of their value. Widespread wind erosion in the 1930s prompted him to petition for a federal government program in support of shelterbelt planting. Kennedy then helped organize the Conquest Field Shelterbelt Association, which planted more than 800 miles of field shelterbelts over the next 25 years. The Saskatchewan Department of Agriculture, profiting from the Conquest example, promoted a province-wide program of shelterbelt planting. More than 8,000 miles of field and roadside shelterbelts resulted. Kennedy was an early advocate of continuous cropping and from 1948-1960 his farm was operated as an experimental substation under contract to the Canada Department of Agriculture. Extensive research into moisture conservation was undertaken.

Two other proponents of tree culture on the prairies in the early years were the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and the Forestry Branch of the Department of the Interior. The CPR, with its vested interest in promoting settlement, established a nursery at Wolseley for the propagation of trees, shrubs, and perennials. A year later, in 1908, the company organized a special department to oversee gardens at its properties and to provide advise for the planting of railway gardens and rail-side windbreaks.

Beginning in 1916, Forest Reserves were planted on several areas of sandy soils, such as a site near Dundurn where a remnant plantation remains. The idea for such plantings date to 1889, when Dominion Forestry Commissioner J.H. Morgan wrote that sandy desert could be "rendered valuable by tree planting." The plantations also have historical significance as part of the original vision of providing wood and fuel for the farming community.

Private nurseries began developing in the 1920s but did not flourish until the last half of Saskatchewan's first century. The Saskatchewan Nursery Trades Association was formed in 1957.

Behind all of these social and individual efforts were cultural, social, political and even moral objectives that dominated in the period of rapid settlement. In the vast, open prairies, settlers planted trees not only for protection from wind and drifting snow but also to approximate European concepts of beauty and the element of psychological security. An underlying mission of settlement was the creation of a new Eden in a new land.

"Arbor Day", which became an official holiday dedicated to tree planting in Nebraska in 1874 was first proclaimed in the fledgling North-West Territories in 1884.1 At that very time experimental farms were being developed across the west. The Experimental Farm Station Act of 1886 gave prime place to horticulture and tree production. One of their objectives was the promotion of shelterbelts on farmsteads to create microclimates for garden and fruit culture. Between 1886 and 1890 the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa shipped about 500,000 seedlings to the prairies for distribution to farmers by the experimental farms. Stations at Indian Head and Brandon also produced seedlings for distribution. While many did not survive, they provided a basis for determining suitable varieties. To expand its promotion of farmstead shelterbelts, the federal government established a separate Dominion Tree Nursery at Indian Head in 1903, now the PFRA Shelterbelt Centre.

The experimental farms themselves prioritized the planting of perimeter shelterbelts and demonstration plantings of ornamentals such as lilac, spirea and hardy roses. At Indian Head Experimental Farm, thousands of forest and fruit trees and shrubs, along with soft fruit plants, were planted in the first year and by 1893 over 110, 000 trees had been planted on the 640 acre farm. The use of windbreaks protected garden crops and fruit trees from wind damage, and also increased yields. Testing of varieties of tree and plant material originating in central Canada, the northern United States, and Eurasia was also undertaken. Growing fruit, particularly apple, was symbolic of the mission of safe and bountiful settlement. Within 25 years, the Farm "had been transformed from bare prairie to a park of hedges, drives, lawns, flowerbeds, and shelterbelts. Work on trees was still continued, and several hardy varieties of crab apples were introduced."2. This reference illustrates the aesthetic advantages that were emphasized up until WWI. Afterwards, more practical advantages were more prominent in promotional literature.

The tradition of tree planting continues today with modified objectives such as wildlife habitat, greenhouse gas absorption and energy conservation. There are government and non-profit organizations that provide seedlings and assistance. However the vision and motivation of individuals remains a key element. One example is "Slough View Park", an oasis on the Sawkey farm near Saltcoats, SK.3 Since 1995, retired teacher, John Sawkey has planted some 20,000 trees and shrubs on the 160 acres adjacent to his ten-acre yard site with the intent of turning this land back to wildlife habitat. A nature trail has been developed linking the ten plantations through open areas of grasses. Hidden on the property is an original slough, a haven for ducks and geese. The farm site itself has acres of flowers.

Although the park was developed primarily for wildlife, visitors are welcome. An extensive website offers all kinds of advice on tree and flower culture. It is a prime example of prairie perseverance in revisioning and reshaping the landscape. Fortunately, with planting trees it is hard to go wrong in terms of environmental benefits, whatever the objectives for planting.

1 It is estimated that more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day.
2 (link is no longer valid)

For more information see Horticulture on the Canadian Prairies, 1870-1930 by Lyle Dick and New and Naked Land: Making the Prairies Home by Ronald Rees.

Wyndham Winkler Ashley

Since 1995, John Sawkey has planted some 20,000 trees and shrubs with the intent of turning this land back to wildlife habitat. Credit: Superior Air Photo

Some 800 miles of farm shelterbelts were planted near Conquest, SK. Over a 25 year period.