SANFORD — The digging was rough in spots, but the students and their mentors ”“ members of the Sanford-Springvale Mousam Way Land Trust ”“ worked together to complete the task.

About 40 seventh-grade students from Sanford Junior High School joined land trust members Wednesday, digging holes, planting, measuring, watering and recording soil types and other details, planting 36 American chestnut trees. The project, proponents say, is an investment in the future even as it harks back to the past.

The planting took place in a secluded spot off Hanson’s Ridge Road, on town-owned land on which the land trust holds an easement. Students trod through a field to get to it; another route meandered a path through the woods, the forest floor carpeted with scarlet and golden autumn leaves. The pathway led to a clearing that land trust members made in the forest earlier this year.

Spearheaded by land trust President Gordon “Bud” Johnston, the trees planted are a reintroduction of a species that have all but disappeared from the landscape, struck by a blight 100 years ago.

According to The American Chestnut Foundation, the American chestnut tree grew more than 200 million acres from southern Maine to Florida, until it succumbed to a lethal fungus known as the chestnut blight during the first half of the 20th century.

Glen Rea, president of the Maine chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, said in a February interview that seeds of the American chestnut will grow 18 inches the first year, two feet the second and then three to four feet a year. They often grow to be more than 100 feet tall. Trees begin to produce seed in seven to eight years, Rea estimated. The wood of the chestnut was used in making fine furniture, he said. It was useful for split-rail fences, and the chestnuts are a high-protein, low-fat food ”“ both for humans and for wildlife like beavers and turkeys, which thrive on the seeds of the chestnut tree.

Johnston, a retired botanist, on Wednesday said the students were planting American chestnuts, and four chestnut hybrids.

Teacher Karen Birch said the students will monitor the progress of the trees.

Land trust member Rick Stanley said the trust needs stewards, particularly as current land trust members grow older.

“They’ll remember they planted these and hopefully they’ll take a special interest in the project that will last years and years,” he said as he and other land trust members prepared to assist the students.

Fellow land trust member Harold Potter said he hoped some students would stay in the area and be able, one day, to gather chestnuts from the trees they had planted.

Maddie Gagne, waiting to do her bit ”“ spraying a mixture of dried cattle blood and vegetable oil to deter nibbling by deer and rabbits ”“ said she was enjoying the planting experience.

“I think I’ll come back, eventually,” to see the progress, she said.

Johnston said the land trust chose the spot because chestnuts are also associated with red oak, white ash and black birch, all of which were found in the area; the trees like light, fairly well-drained soils, and they tend to thrive when planted on the south side of hills in a protected area.

Nate Martineau was one of the students on planting detail. He carefully nudged a seedling out of its plastic container and into a prepared hole, and then tapped soil in around it. He learned how to plant, he said, because an uncle has a garden.

Students identified three soil types, and Birch, the teacher, said they’d mark each tree that was planted on a grid so they’ll be able to tell if the soil type played a role as the trees grow.

By the end of the school day, all the trees were in the ground.

“They’re all planted, all watered and all happy,” said Johnston.

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, Ext. 327 or [email protected].

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