Our Tree Identification Project: the Beginning

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Suburban backyard

One of the best things about our new home is the backyard. Even though it doesn’t get played in nearly as much as I thought it would, it’s beautiful. I love looking out my kitchen window as I wash dishes, gazing at the trees and watching the squirrels and chipmunks zip around.

Mighty oak and dogwood

There are two tree directly outside the kitchen window that I can easily identify. The first is the star of our yard and the namesake of our street. It is an enormous, grand oak tree. I have to laugh, because there were years when I wanted to make crafts and projects with the kids that involved acorns, and I couldn’t find any near our old home for the life of me. Now we could fill a baby pool and swim in acorns if we wanted to!

The other tree is a dogwood. I’ve wanted a dogwood tree since our early days of home ownership in Nashville, Tennessee. I love dogwood blossoms in the spring, the way they seem to just float on air. We moved in this house in mid-March and had no idea what kind of tree it was. When those tell-tale blossoms made their first appearance I squealed like I had just gotten the world’s best gift on Christmas morning.

Dogwood blossoms

The idea came to me this summer that we should make an effort to identify every tree that grows in our backyard. For one, I think it will add another layer of appreciation we have for this home. Naming something shows you value it, and we are very thankful for these trees, and the beauty and shade they provide. (We will probably not be quite as thankful as we rake all the leaves, though!)

My other motivation is how excited my kids get at hands-on science activities. I’m a scientist at heart, with a degree in microbiology. Some of my favorite school memories involved the experiments and moments of study when we got our hands dirty. I remember the middle school assignment when we had to display and identify insects we had collected. I couldn’t believe something so fun and fascinating could be considered homework.

I don’t see my kids getting these same kinds of experiences nearly as much in school today. I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect it is a combination of factors. Insect identification probably isn’t covered in the statewide test, and so it is pushed aside for something that is measurable. I also wonder if liability issues and complaints from parents keep teachers from taking the kids outside to get dirty and explore. What if Johnny didn’t wear sunscreen? What if Lucy gets into poison ivy?

The other day Elena was telling me about an activity they worked on in science class. Her teacher brought in samples of dirt she collected around her yard. The students took those dirt samples and looked at them under microscopes. It’s so hard to get Elena to chat about her day. Getting details can be like pulling teeth. But on this day she talked for a good five minutes just about that experience – how the dirt smelled, how everyone’s seemed to have something different, how fun it is to use the microscope, how equally disgusting and fascinating the nematode was that they found in their sample.

Obviously these kinds of experiences have a deep impact on our kids and their excitement for learning. I see our tree identification process as a way to have that kind of experience in our own backyard. We are in the beginning stages of the project, so I thought I would share along with you as we proceed. I’ll let you know how we went about it, the resources we used, and how the kids respond. I think fall is a great time for this project, and I hope you’ll join in with us and share the trees you find in your backyard (or neighborhood, or local park … wherever)!

Have you ever made the effort to identify the plants in your backyard? If so, what were your favorite resources?



  1. Hi there-
    I love your blog! I am a landscape designer and former teacher and my specialty is creating natural play and learning spaces for kids.
    I suggest the Master Tree Finder http://www.amazon.com/Tree-Finder-Manual-Identification-Eastern/dp/0912550015 which is a great tool for learning trees. It leads you through a process for narrowing down and eventually ID’ing trees (the same publishers also do a Winter Tree Finder, Fern Finder, Flower Finder and Berry Finder– all awesome resources!)
    Also, FYI– the “greenest” most sustainable way to deal with your leaves is go LEAVE them in place. On your lawn you can go over them with a mulching mower and let them feed the soil. Elsewhere you can learn from the forest where there is the richest, best soil (for future science projects) and let the leaves feed the trees and shrubs naturally. Plus decomposing leaves attract all sorts of cool insects!
    Happy Fall and thanks for sharing all the cool stuff you’re doing.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and that wonderful resource! Yes, we are definitely trying to rake as little as possible and mulch as many as we can that are on the grass. Luckily for us we do have that great wooded space that is perfect for letting the leaves decompose. Of course, we have to rake some so we can have giant piles to jump into, right?!


  1. […] on a project – to identify every tree in our backyard!  You can read about the project here and […]